Pick Your Superpower

The ladder

Thanks to FeedDemon, I've located Ben Hyde's “Ascription is an Anathema to any Enthusiasm” blog and his interesting take on the Laws:

Kim Cameron’s Laws of identity reminded me to two things. First it reminded by of the This American Life episode on superpowers. One of the segments in that episode involves asking people which superpower they would pick: invisibility or flying. That implodes into a discussion of what the choice tells you about the person. My frivolous brain then meandered into thinking what superpower would I pick if I wanted to solve the identity problem; since Kim took “maker of laws”; I think I might pick “shaper of markets.”

The reason the Passport stumbled was that Microsoft hadn’t admitted that the shape of market power in their industry had changed. Prior to the Passport experience nobody in their “ecology” had aggregated enough market share (and in this case we are speaking of share of the identity market) to both care and decline to their leadership. Prior to that time frame Microsoft, on their bad days, could keep the puppies living in their ecology chasing tail lights.

What changes in the shape of the market was three fold. First the scope of the market blew wide open. Just to pick one example the Internet market included all the telephone companies where the jungle where Microsoft was king of the forest didn’t. Second the internet had already created a huge bloom of new players. Some of those were already really large; e.g. Yahoo, AOL, Amazon, eBay, etc. etc. Of those only eBay chose to follow Microsoft’s leadership. The third aspect was how critical this functionality was to the business models of some of the players.

Kim recently said that Passport failed because it broke one of his design constraints, i.e. that identity architecture will be more stable it’s designed to assure that the fewest parties are involved. That is absolutely a key constraint. Not because it’s more stable in the long run. No. In fact it’s probably much more stable in the long run. Consider eBay; eBay is a very very stable business architecture; because it inserts a nominally unnecessary party – a middleman – into every single transaction.

That constraint is desirable because it makes your offering less threatening. It accelerates adoption, it isn’t a long term stabilizing force it’s a short term driver of growth. The kind of thing firms often, intentionally or not, use as the fulcrum of a bait and switch. Have you noticed that the email announcing you have made a purchse at eBay now includes a link that hands you off to Paypal thru DoubleClick!

Yes, Passport failed because it broke that constraint; but it would be a hell of a lot more straight forward to say that Passport failed because it fundamentally threatened the customers’ businesses and Microsoft lacked the market power to get away with that.

The second thing the use of the word “laws” rather than say “first draft design constraints” was the drawing on the right taken from here. When the software industry was defined by the desktop Microsoft could thrive as a business on the lowest rungs of that ladder. For example when it would Consult would be done at arms length thru market research or ad-hoc conversations at developer conferences. Placation was a job for PR. Partnership was an occasional activity to be engaged in with Intel, IBM, possibly Apple or Sony. The bottom three rungs where the job, for example, of the developer network.

Marc Canter wrote recently that solving the Identity problem is 98% political. Absolutely. But, damn it. For most of the vast majority of the leaders in this industry their model of politics was framed the crimes of Nixon and Vietnam. Their model of the industry is small startups and the wonderful empowering of small players enabled by the PC and Moore’s law. The word politics is right up there with necrophilia on the list of ethical activities. An attitudes make it very difficult to work constructively on the top rungs of that ladder. Notice, the guy that drew that ladder couldn’t bring himself to label the top rungs “politics.”

The bag of of governance models for working on problems is huge. The standards process around Atom is a very modern example. But, I do not believe that Microsoft know how to work at these levels; 25 years of habit aren’t easily changed. I do not see any sign they have made significant progress in learning how since the Hailstorm debacle. I don’t think they even know what kind of debacle Hailstorm was. Look at how hard they fought to keep Sun out of WS.

If you want think seriously about working at that level there are two groups trying to do that. WS and Liberty. I was involved in Liberty (and I’ve taken money from other players in this market) but it appears to me that only Liberty is actually trying to work on the political problem of solving the identity puzzle. Much higher on that ladder than any other group, by far. Not high enough; but much higher.

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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.