Wednesday, October 27, 2010

PayPal Identity Services Talk @ PayPal Innovate 2010

Today at the PayPal Developers conference Ashish Jain, my friend and colleague and PayPal’s point man on all things identity, talked about PayPal vision of identity and PayPal Identity Service in his presentation titled, not surprisingly, “PayPal Identity Services”.

If you are involved in the world of internet, as a developer or even an observer, or if you have attended any web related conference in the past 12-18 month (including our own DevCon) you must be familiar with the core identity problem: users have too many accounts, too many password, too often they forget them, it is too easy to phish passwords and too expensive for companies to support users who either forgot their passwords or have had their account taken over …. Ashish talked about it in his presentation (as it is mandatory for these presentations, including mine, to recount the carnage first).

You may have guessed the next step, PayPal, among many others, offers to be an Identity Provider (IDP). Your one and only account you ever need (at least for whenever you want to shop on the Internet). 

You may think, so what? There are so many other identity providers (most notably Facebook) … but (as Lee Corso of ESPN says) “not so fast my friend”, there is actually a difference in this game of being identity provider between PayPal and everyone else, what Ashish, modestly, calls “Qualified Data” (interestingly the second bullet point in his slide – why not the first? I have to ask him).

See, as it turns out providing identity (as in what an IDP does) it is not that hard, pick a protocol (OpenID, OAuth, SAML …) and transfer identity data (unique identifier, name, email, phone number etc.) from the IDP to Relying Party (RP). You can do that in few hours (literally), what turns out to be hard (and expensive and complex), is providing “High Quality” identity, as in identity data the someone actually validates and make sure they are accurate and up to date and actually owned by the person who claims s/he owns it. This is what Ashish means by “Qualified Data”. Now if you are a merchant, which identity you rather rely on? An identity from a site that simply takes users claims (about what her name is, where she lives etc.) and toss it over to you or from PayPal where this set of data is verified and maintained and by the way you know that there is a valid financial/payment instrument attached to it? 

Too often people responsible for building an identity provider argue endlessly  about merits of protocols, compare OpenID to OAuth and talk about how complex SAML is. In the process they miss the much bigger point: what matters is the quality of identity provided not the means by which it is provided.

This is what make PayPal identity (regardless of whether they use OpenID or OAuth or anything else) potentially the most interesting and useful identity in my view.
Ashish also shows a demo where PayPal OpenID service is wrap by Gigya API. Gigya is an aggregator of identity provider, instead of learning multiple APIs from different IDPs, developers simply deal with Gigya API. It is an interesting concept. Check them out here.

It would be interesting to see how far PayPal push their Identity Service (both in terms of end user adoption and merchant adoption) and whether or not they offer different classes of identity (based on data quality) and respective financial assurance levels.


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