Last week’s simultaneous launches of Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect diverted attention from an equally important launch: A major rollout of a universal login service, called RPX, from a Portland, Oregon-based startup, JanRain. The company announced that RPX is being rolled out to over 200 properties operated by Universal Music’s Interscope Geffen A&M, bringing simplified login to music group sites like Weezer, Lady Gaga, and Snoop Dogg, among many others.
Until now, JanRain has been a pureplay OpenID solution provider, hoping to build a business just on OpenID, the promising open standard for single sign-on. But the company has now added Facebook as a proprietary login choice amidst the various OpenID options on RPX, a move that shifts them into a more neutral stance, straddling the Facebook and “Open Stack” camps. In my view, that puts JanRain in the interesting and enviable position of being the “Switzerland” of the emerging online identity wars.
For site operators, RPX offers an economical way to integrate the non-core function of “login via third-party identity providers” at a time when the choices in that space are growing and evolving rapidly. So, rather than direct its own technical resources to integrating Facebook Connect and the various OpenID implementations from MySpace, Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, along with plain vanilla OpenID, a site operator can simply outsource all of those headaches to JanRain. A free version is available for small sites; large sites will typically choose the Pro version that starts at $1,000 per year and scales with the number of registered users. Having seen what it takes right now to integrate with all the latest identity offerings from my work with Joseph Smarr at Plaxo, I can imagine lots of sites finding RPX a very attractive alternative.
Lee Hammond, an executive of Interscope Geffen A&M sums it up nicely:
“It’s a double win, really. Through RPX we’re presenting the broadest range of sign-in options for users without having to chew up internal development resources to keep them current. I’m looking forward to when Microsoft rolls out OpenID because it will just ‘show-up’ without requiring additional time from our developers to support it.”
JanRain effectively becomes a middleman between destination sites and the online identity providers, offering a single, tightly integrated service that normalizes the widely varying solutions. In the process the company finds itself an aggregator of highly valuable data on market adoption trends across a large and growing number of sites and across all the identity providers.
One key question all this raises: Given a menu that includes AOL, Facebook, Google, MySpace, Yahoo, and OpenID, which brand will users choose as their preferred way to sign in to new sites? The RPX service hasn’t been out long enough to know that answer in any sort of definitive way. But, early results make it clear that the answer will differ from site to site, depending upon audience demographics. While RPX’s current user interface offers the same choices for all sites, the plan is to introduce the flexibility to tailor the options to the specific site, based on usage data. So, if your site is wildly popular with the MySpace crowd and very few people choose to login with, say, their AOL OpenID, you might choose to simplify the UI by removing the AOL-branded option. (Motivated AOL users could still pick the OpenID-branded choice and log in that way.)
For those who have wondered whether OpenID and the Open Stack could end up with a user interface and user experience to match Facebook Connect, it’s clear that RPX is a big step forward, with a clean “lightbox” UI. And for those who have wondered what sites will do when confronted with the choice of Facebook Connect or OpenID, RPX helps to remind us that sites want maximum audience and are keen on presenting whatever choices get them the most users and the best new-user onboarding. I got to see some of the data from the first few days of RPX on Universal Music sites, and the thing that struck me was that none of the identity providers accounted for a majority of logins, but that the OpenID providers in aggregate did, at just under 60%. It’s going to be really interesting to watch how all this shakes out. I look forward to seeing the data after a few weeks have passed.
For more coverage of this important story, see last week’s piece by Rick Turoczy of ReadWriteWeb.