Everyone I talk these days seems to be focused on future direction of OpenID, trying to solve some of the fundamental problems such as the broken user experience and security model. I am not very hopeful, but that is a topic for another time. I would like to highlight what I consider to be OpenID’s real contribution to the Open Web, and why that alone is enough to secure it a place in web history.
1. Promoting Intellectual Property Awareness
Without the efforts to create an IP framework for OpenID, and subsequently learning from its mistakes, we would not be working on (and getting close to) the vision of the Open Web Foundation. That is, a simple, uniform framework for writing and licensing specifications without the need for complex and costly standard bodies. The OAuth license, as well as the OpenSocial policy, both directly derived from the OpenID work.
2. Individuals First, Corporations Second
The founders of the OpenID foundation set an important precedence, in which the balance between individuals and large corporation is tilted towards the individuals. They made a clear separation between the activities of the foundation (closed) to those of the community writing the actual specifications (open). These principals seems obvious now, but if you look at many other organizations and how they were setup, it is not always the case.
3. The Equal Access Principle
OpenID is a great example of a specification and a community which put the Equal Access Principle at the top of their requirements list. It is still not perfect, but it is far better than most other specifications in the space. If anything, they seem to be going too far with it.
4. Planting the Seeds of Discovery
The (relative) success of OpenID brought together a few other identity frameworks, and they needed some “glue” in order work together. That glue materialized in the form of XRDS and Yadis. But the actual contribution was the introduction of a simple discovery framework whose key principals that are still guiding new discovery developments. In other words, OpenID showed how a discovery framework can work in practice.
5. Inspiring Specification Communities
This is pretty obvious. Without OpenID there would not be such vibrant and active communities as OAuth, OpenSocial, Portable Contacts, etc. The idea that a bunch of people can come together and in a short time (and mostly on their own) produce a specification that will win fast adoption is closely linked to OpenID. It is certainly not the first, but it is the inspiration for much of the recent wave of web specifications.
6. Making Identity More Accessible
Identity is hard. Really hard. There is a reason why we are so far from accomplishing even our most modest objectives. But before OpenID, it was the exclusive domain of governments, academic institutes, large corporations, and identity experts. The “little guy” wasn’t really allowed to have a say, or influence the direction of the future web identity framework. OpenID made it easier to understand, and gave people a simple framework they can start playing with today.