Someone must have called a ceasefire in the cosmic struggle over online users' identities. Just a few years ago, AOL and Microsoft were duking it out to be the middlemen who controlled every online transaction, through their warring identity services. AOL already had tens of millions of email addresses and credit card numbers; Microsoft was trying to build a similar database through its Passport service -- the same one you use to log into your Hotmail account.
But as News.com smartly points out, Passport is moribund. Microsoft got such bad PR for trying to sign up businesses to use the online login and wallet services that it appears to have given up on using it for anything but its own network of sites.
Passport came out of Microsoft's 1998 acquisition of Firefly, an amazing little startup. Few people remember this, but Yahoo actually used Firefly technology to develop its famous "My Yahoo" page. Though Yahoo continued to refine the technology on its own, the fact that you can log into My Yahoo, then surf to a personalized Yahoo Finance portfolio, then buy something on Yahoo Shopping without retyping your credit card, you owe in part to Firefly. The same is true when you use Passport to go from Hotmail to a personalized MSN news page.
But neither Yahoo nor Microsoft succeeded in implementing Firefly's true vision -- one secure place where you could log in and personalize the entire Web. The problem is that businesses and consumers alike distrust a single entity possessing too much customer data. Microsoft may take another swipe at the online-identity challenge when it introduces its Longhorn operating system -- but that's years away. For now, we'll have to remember a lot of different passwords. Such is the price we pay in the cosmic struggle.