While I was at OSCON, I had the opportunity to attend an interesting Identity oriented BOF along with Stephe Walli and Dave Gynn, where notable identity resources such as Steve Gillmor, Doc Searls and Kaliya Hamlin were holding forth on issues around federation, interop, privacy and so forth. Great conversation, lots of interesting ideas, and I look forward to seeing what these smart folks – along with others like Kim Cameron – can do with a problem that’s hideously complex.
But in the meantime, I’m looking for a solution to a similarly vexing but presumably easier to solve problem; the issue of local identity. No, I don’t mean that in the Active Directory / LDAP sense, as in the ability to access locally networked resources – I mean local as in “my machine.” The problem there is simple and probably something everyone’s experienced: there’s no single notion of an individual at the local level.
In other words, we have different views of a contact from application to application, with little if any way to connect those identities together in any meaningful fashion. For example, let’s take the first individual cited above: Stephe Walli. I have his IM, which is stored in GAIM, I have his email and phone information, which is stored in Evolution (which, incidentally, can do nothing with that phone information), and I have his blog, which is stored in Bloglines. Apart from the lightweight GAIM Evolution syncing that I’ve never gotten to work, Stephe Walli does not exist as an individual on my machine. He exists as a set of completely separate channels that I’m forced to manage myself. Thus when I write Stephe Walli in my blog authoring environment, it’s just another piece of text, and to link to him I’m forced to hunt down his URL and apply it manually. For this entry, then, I was forced to do six Google searches (Bloglines is down at the moment) and six cut and pastes. That seems dumb, given that the majority of these people are known entities to me.
Microsoft has clearly perceived this problem, because the integration of presence and IM into Outlook has been around for a long while now – long enough that I had it when I last ran Windows/Outlook as my primary environment. The difficulty is that it is – or at least was when I last ran it – aimed at Microsoft managed identities. Thus it was great at managing MSN Messenger identities, but did nothing for my AIM contacts (let alone Jabber), which perhaps not coincidentally form the bulk of my buddylist. If you’re on a relatively homogenous infrastructure, Microsoft is probably your best bet to solve this problem; check out Don Box’s experiences with Office Communicator here. I don’t believe that homogeneity’s going to be a popular approach for a large customer segment, however, given all the conversations I’ve had in the past with Wall St broker-dealers that are using AIM, Communicator or other non-MS IM systems. Thus it would seem there’s an opportunity for an application independent, non-vendor centric approach.
The question in my mind is this: is it worthwhile to try and establish some form of centralized identity repository, such that an individual on your local machine becomes not simply another meaningless string of text but a meaningful namespace? Something that other applications – be they blog, IM, email, office productivity, or otherwise could access via a standardized API much as they might access spellcheck? The basic topology might look something like the Evolution Data Server in GNOME, but with more robust capabilities and an API that applications could ask not to check spelling, but to perform a lookup against a library of known identity namespaces.
I won’t speak for the rest of you, but I’m sick of wasting effort linking to the same people over and over; there has to be a programmatic way of addressing this, and in such a fashion as to solve other problems at the same time. This is all the more relevant if Asterisk takes off the way that I think it could, because then that voice contact information that is mere data within the confines of an addressbook becomes actionable.
The big bang opportunity in the Identity space is clearly around seamless management of my external identities and personas, but let’s be honest: it’s not like our ability to manage them just in the context of a single machine is much better.