That was the surprising about face Bill Gates made today at the RSA security conference in San Francisco.
Not long ago, when Microsoft still felt on top of the world, Gates said everyone in the world should use Microsoft Passport to identify themselves online. It was a cornerstone of the Hailstorm Web services strategy that spooked companies big and small.
Then Microsoft went on its crusade against Linux and open source for a few years, before changing tack and accepting that big customers are using both Windows and Linux.
Microsoft just released a new version of Passport with Vista — called Windows CardSpace — and it hopes lots of people use the technology. But this time around it’s presenting itself as playing well with others, including an open-source identity system called OpenID.
As evidence the company announced today that it will work with a handful of other companies, including VeriSign, to make OpenID and Windows CardSpace interoperable.
The company also announced that it’s assigning its identity guru, Kim Cameron, to work on the project:
Microsoft recognizes the growth of the OpenID community and believes OpenID plays a significant role in the Internet identity infrastructure. Kim Cameron, Chief Architect of Identity at Microsoft, will work with the OpenID community on authentication and anti-phishing.
It’s a positive step but it remains to be seen how much Microsoft is opening up. It also seems more like pragmatism than a philosophical shift.
Gates and Craig Mundie said all the different systems for establishing identity are confusing people, and the stuff has to work together.
In other words, if the Internet checkpoints are too complicated, it will slow the growth of online services and digital commerce. That’s where Microsoft can compete with its proprietary services, which may take off if people trust and embrace new identity systems.
Identity theft is already slowing, in part because people and banks are more aware of the risks and more cautious online.
“To create the level of seamless, pervasive connectivity that will make secure anywhere access a reality, continued collaboration and cooperation across this industry is essential,” Mundie said in the release. “If we can work together to enhance trust, it will open the door to a transformation in the way people share experiences, explore ideas and create opportunities.”
Trumpets blew, flags fluttered and doves were set free when Microsoft announced it would collaborate with Sun and Novell, but those collaborations turned out to be more like forced reconciliations then embraces.
The OpenID news seems more positive, especially since it wasn’t prompted by a federal lawsuit. But we’ll have to wait and see how it turns out.
UPDATE: Clemens Vasters, a Microsoft program manager, said on his blog that it’s big announcement but not surprising if you’ve seen how things have changed inside the company:
If you ask me, that’s pretty big. But working here it’s not as much of a surprise as it might be for people on the outside. We’re very closely looking at what the community is building and asking for and if we see technologies or initiatives out there that gain lots of traction (such as REST programming, JSON or OpenID) I don’t see a “wasn’t invented here” attitude around anymore around here these days.