Microsoft Changes Tune on Liberty Alliance

UPDATED Another key player has signed onto the Sun-led Liberty Alliance that is intent to forge a unified identity and authentication service for the Internet in lieu of Microsoft's Passport. American Express has joined the long list of allies that rallied to Sun's banner including leading airlines, financial, and security companies.

The announcement comes just days after Microsoft's bitter rival, America Online, consummated its partnership with Sun and gave its full backing to the project despite having developed its own Passport alternative, formerly code-named Magic Carpet.

Initially, Microsoft turned a blind eye to the alliance, shrugging off Sun's attempt to unseat Passport and throw a monkey wench in the company's plans to establish a standard Web services platform. After all, according to a company spokesperson, Passport has 200 million accounts that generate roughly 3.5 billion authentications each month, as well as a tightly integrated role in Windows XP. Microsoft's feelings toward liberty alliance culminated in a speech by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer given at the Gartner Group Symposium October 10th.


Ballmer was quoted as saying, "I think the Sun thing has absolutely zero probability of mattering to the world. And that's my non-emotional view of the topic." He also contradicted Sun's claim that the software giant was invited to participate in the alliance's mission to drive standards. According to Ballmer, nothing tangible would come out of Sun's efforts.

When asked if his comments were too harsh in retrospect, Ballmer simply told BetaNews, "No."

Since that time, Microsoft has toned down the rhetoric and has perhaps taken into consideration the fact that some of its largest customers reside within the group. With the addition of American Express and today's late addition of Nokia, Redmond has added incentive to re-evaluate its stance. Amex's Blue is a smartcard, with an integrated chip programmed in the Java language.

A Microsoft spokesperson told BetaNews, "We are watching the alliance -- if it turns into a real, industry effort based on some good technology that will not stall the industry, then it may be useful. If it continues to be an anti-Microsoft coalition led by Sun, then it will not be very interesting -- so we will take a wait and see approach."

The spokesperson went on to say, "It's important to note that Passport and the Liberty Alliance are not mutually exclusive, Microsoft is interested in single sign-on based on open Internet standards (Kerberos), and we agree and have said for some time that one company should not be in control. We support federated authentication in a very deep way, and are moving forward today - any industry effort must not leave the 200 million customers out in the cold."

It is unclear whether or not AOL will return to the drawing boards and abandon its Magic Carpet solution for Java-based technology, or just simply alter it to agree with the group's standards. An AOL Time Warner spokesperson was not available for comment. As first reported by BetaNews, Magic Carpet was developed by AOL to counter Passport.

A representative of Sun Microsystems told BetaNews, "Sun Microsystems is extremely pleased with the recent announcements from AOL/Time Warner and American Express expressing their commitment to the Liberty Alliance Project."

"It is Sun's perspective that the addition of these two industry leaders sets the foundation for the delivery of a truly open, ubiquitous standard for network identity, authentication and authorization across a multitude of systems touched by the Internet -from cellular phones and web browsers, to automobiles and a myriad of devices and business systems."

As specifications emerge, Sun plans to Liberty-enable its entire line of products.

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