File Under: Browsers, Identity

Mozilla Gets It Right, Moves Identity Management Into Firefox

ffaccountmanagerMozilla has an answer to site-centric identity systems like Facebook’s — put the browser in charge of your online logins instead.

The Mozilla Labs project called Account Manager has graduated from Labs and will soon be making its way into Firefox proper.

Account Manager allows you to log in and out of websites directly through the browser, rather than relying on a particular site’s login form. Using a new menu item in the main toolbar — a button with a picture of a key that sits next to the address field — Account Manager lets you pick a login to use at any site you visit. It stores logins you’ve already created, suggesting them whenever they can be used. It can also generate (and remember) random passwords to make your logins more secure. It’s a radical step up from Firefox’s current Password Manager feature.

Mozilla’s decision to put this new button directly into Firefox’s toolbar brings us one step closer to realizing a ubiquitous social network on the web, where you’re logged in and connected to your friends wherever you go. All the while, you remain in total control of your own identity since you can tinker with all of your logins and connections through some simple panels in the browser.

There’s no word yet on when this will make it into Firefox, but we may see it as soon as Firefox 4, which is due in early 2011. For now, Account Manager is separate add-on you can grab from the Mozilla website. The add-on is still a beta release and there are some known bugs, but in our testing, it performed as advertised.

At the moment, Account Manager works with Google, Yahoo, Facebook and several Mozilla sites. Mozilla is planning to add support for other authentication systems, including OpenID, in the near future. The post on Mozilla Hacks also has instructions for site owners that let them add support for Account Manager with “only 15 minutes of hacking,” though we suspect it will become easier to implement support once the spec is fully formed.

There are several advantages to letting the browser handle logins. The most obvious is that the login form is always in the same place, with the same user interface regardless of which site you’re on, which would make the login experience easier for less-savvy users. Such a feature is also particularly useful if you have multiple accounts on a single site (all too common with the explosion of social networking) and need an easy way to choose which account to sign in with. It also means that, for example, Firefox could implement a sort of “fast user switching” feature that would let you change Facebook accounts with just a click. Ditto for Gmail, Twitter or any other supported website.

Along with its Contacts and Weave projects, Account Manager is part of a larger effort to make Firefox a central part of your online identity. Mozilla calls this its Online Identity Concept Series. It is being developed at a time when web identity is under renewed scrutiny, with Facebook’s announcement last week of its Open Graph protocol for sharing content across websites, and its adoption of new technologies to let people use their Facebook accounts to log in to other sites on the web. Twitter also launched a web-wide sharing feature called @anywhere, which builds on the some of the same identity technologies adopted by Facebook.

Once Mozilla gets all three of its identity projects working together, you would be able to login, discover friends on new websites and sync all your data across computers, effectively eliminating the need for a centralized system like Facebook’s or Twitter’s by handing the job of making connections off to the browser. You could still use whatever login system you like, but you wouldn’t be reliant on any single provider.

And according to insiders, this path makes total sense.

Chris Messina, an OpenID Foundation board member and a longtime advocate of open web technologies, recently posted a video series outlining the work he did with Mozilla last fall to build identity management into the browser (Messina has since taken a job at Google).

“A browser is usually called a user agent, and the idea is that it’s software or a program that acts on your behalf,” Messina says in his post.

If your browser knows who you are, and who your friends are, it can show you photos or status updates posted by your friends, plus other types of social interactions.

“By layering in concepts like identity, the hope is to upgrade the browser into something that is more personal,” he says.

At Facebook’s F8 developer conference last week, Raffi Krikorian from Twitter was speaking on a panel about identity technologies, and when the conversation turned to whether or not the browser should handle logins and social connections, he agreed that such a development would be “a huge step forward for the web.”

“Since the browser exists in between the web service and the user, it makes perfect sense for the browser to handle those identity-management tasks,” Krikorian said.

Thus far, that is still a ways from reality, but with Account Manager out of Labs and headed into Firefox proper, Mozilla is getting closer to this goal.

If you’d like to add support for Account Manager to your own website, be sure to check out the post on Mozilla Hacks which walks you through the steps. It’s not overly complicated, but you will need to be familiar with JSON.

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