Identity is an industry. So wrote my GigaOM colleague Mathew Ingram, and it will be a hot connectivity topic at our GigaOM RoadMap event this week. Mathew is compelled by the argument that Twitter is set to be the main supplier of identity, as put forth by Mark Suster of GRP Partners. But I wouldn’t be so quick to anoint Twitter. An identity management service needs to have a variety of features beyond “follow me” and sign-in, and those related to unified communications and commercial functions are better served by an authenticated identity. Companies like Facebook and Google are making big investments in identity, and these services will play important roles in marketing, communications and e-commerce.
By “authenticated” I mean one that is closely associated with a user’s “true” identity rather than a potentially anonymous public persona. The ultimate identity management service might well consist of these features:
Follow/find me. As Suster points out, posting an email address doesn’t work for the Oprah Winfreys of the world. He likes Twitter for its asymmetrical approach: Friending and following can be one-way. Big deal. Google+ has always supported asymmetrical following, and Facebook recently enabled the feature. Both Google (if not Google+) and Facebook have a far broader reach than Twitter. While Apple’s iOS Twitter integration may increase Twitter usage, that’s still unproven.
Sign in/connect. Single sign in is much easier than registering individually for every site and app. There’s a healthy debate over the value of anonymity in the service of comments and general privacy. The “true identity” suppliers value the interest and activity data they can get from tracking users, but they don’t have to sell individuals. Most advertisers want to market to big groups; actual 1:1 marketing isn’t cost-effective for most products. Identity suppliers already anonymize and bundle targets for marketers.
Authenticity. Business transactions like hiring, credit card purchasing, contract signing and the like depend on actual identities. Reputation scoring that is built on anonymous identity works pretty well for user reviews and comments. But it doesn’t work in assessing for-pay skills or job applications, the core business of LinkedIn.
Presence. A key feature of unified communications is the ability for a user to express his availability for different types of communications (email, chat, voice) in real time. Instant messaging and chat — integrated with email by Facebook, Google and others (Microsoft, Yahoo) — handle presence management, while Twitter does not.
Groups. Right now, sophisticated users expose their presence to select groups of contacts manually, by logging into or lurking on different communications applications. As with presence management, group management would be most effective if tied to real identities rather than pseudonyms.
A well designed identity management service would have authenticated identity at its root, but it would support anonymized personae that a user might want to use for different functions: business, shopping, talking trash. The user would have to trust the identity supplier to protect his privacy as needed.
The company that can build such a powerful, flexible service will still have to teach consumers how to use it. Think of the number of variables a user would have to manage: personae, groups, communications mediums, degrees of commercial access, etc. That will be a barrier to mass adoption.
So who’s in the game besides Twitter? Facebook has mass adoption and widespread third-party Connect usage. Google search and mail have reach; Google Voice is richly integrated, and Google+ is promising support for pseudonyms. For professional purposes, LinkedIn has an established, trusted user base. Adding communications brings in the telcos and Apple, which is doing a good job of integrating communications and contacts from multiple sources on iOS. Given the challenges of integrating all of those features and teaching consumers how to use them, plus the possibility of additional entrants, identity services will see further fragmentation for at least the next 24 months before any leaders emerge.