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Summary:

Firefox has thrown down the gauntlet in the race to take charge of your online identity, saying it will add identity-management features to its browser, and hopes to build recommendation services into it as well. The move pits the browser’s open-source model against Facebook’s proprietary approach.

Firefox has thrown down the gauntlet in the race to take charge of your online identity, saying it will soon add identity management features to its browser, and hopes at some point to build recommendation services into the browser as well. The move pits the Mozilla Foundation and its open-source model against the proprietary approach taken by Facebook, which recently launched a series of features that it hopes will convince users and websites to use Facebook profiles as their default login for online services, and to implement the social network’s “Like” plugins as a universal standard.

The new addition to Firefox is called Account Manager, and it effectively transfers authority over logging in to various websites and services to the browser. Using a single menu in the main toolbar of the browser, next to the address field, Firefox will be able to log a user — or multiple users — into and out of multiple services, and will even be able to generate random passwords for users who don’t want to come up with their own. The service will apparently also support any standard for authentication such as OpenID (or presumably OAuth as well, which Facebook now supports), and is designed to be an open standard.

Firefox has effectively promoted the Account Manager plugin (or add-on, as it calls them now) from its Labs experimentation project to the official browser development stream. The add-on is available as a beta here, and after some testing and development will be added to the shipping version of the browser. The Firefox team said it is looking to “ship this feature as soon as possible,” and that adding support for it to an existing website or service should only take “as little as 15 minutes of hacking.”

It’s clear that Firefox sees the browser as the primary agent that stands between a user and the services and websites she wants to visit. That effectively means Firefox is going to go head-to-head with Facebook, which also wants to be the primary means by which users log in to websites and services. According to the Firefox blog, the Account Manager add-on is just part of a larger “online identity concept series” that Mozilla Labs has been working on, which includes looking at all the ways the browser can help users interact with the web:

Your Web browser, as your most trusted relationship in your life online, has nearly perfect knowledge of everything you do on the Web. We envision a world where your browser will play an even more active and critical role in helping you control and shape your online experience. To realize this vision, we need to increase the browser’s understanding of your online identity and provide a platform for building new capabilities that securely take advantage of this rich, dynamic set of data that represents the digital “you.”

According to Mozilla Labs, some of the ideas it’s working on include managing account information, but also questions such as “How can your browser help when you discover something cool on the Web that you want to share with your friends?” and also “What can your browser do to enable you to securely share data with websites and third-parties in return for context-rich Web experiences?” Those are both goals that will also bring the Firefox developer into direct competition with Facebook for access to user’s data and personalization or recommendation features.

Identity online seems to have gone from being a two-way race, with Google and Facebook, to being a three-way contest. May the best service win.

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  1. blackfeathers Tuesday, April 27, 2010

    i don’t trust firefox as a password manager. why should i trust it with managing online identities? considering its popularity, it’s likely a single point of failure with potential for exploits.

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  3. While I agree with blackfeathers about the single point of failure that can also be said about our google accounts, facebook, etc. It all depends on how much info we keep in those accounts and how intense the security protocols are for them.

    The thing I do like about this is that it gives the owner more control, I think lol.

    The basic idea is good, the browser knows what I do, etc. . . and therefore should retain that info and be able to interact with sites to personalize them for me without giving out my personal information to the sites. That would be favorable if proper security could be implemented. Firefox needs much better sandboxing, IMO.

  4. In-browser identity makes sense if you only use one browser.

    Taking a super-cynical view, you could say that a couple of the recent useful Mozilla Labs innovations — Account Manager and Contacts, which could both become part of the browser in future — would be pretty good ways of tying people to Firefox. If it were Microsoft doing this, I’d be a lot more worried, though…

  5. Yoono a FF social aggregator add-in has a similar functionality and works pretty well.

  6. Simon,

    We would very much like for our proposals to become open standards. In fact, we intend to put them through an open process to that end.

    As for your data being only on one browser, if you take a narrow view, you are right–but that’s why we have also invested in Weave Sync, so that your information can be securely migrated to other browsers.

    And there’s nothing about Weave Sync that prevents it from working with other non-Mozilla browsers/applications, in fact we have sample code for accessing the Weave store via php, python, etc.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dan.

    2. thanks for the clarification, Dan. I would have expected nothing less than a totally open approach from Mozilla, which is why I said my comment was “super-cynical” :) Certainly, putting this kind of functionality into the browser makes sense for a lot of folks.

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