I met Jeremiah Owyang last night and he sent me a link to a post he did a couple weeks ago on the future of Facebook. It’s an excellent post which maps out a future that may very well come to pass. To sum it up, he predicts that the current Facebook platform will eventually open up and offer itself up as an authentication service.
Facebook will launch an Identity widget that I can embed on my blog. This allows only those who have registered to Facebook to leave a comment, many high profile blogs will do this, to avoid nasty anonymous comments, thus reducing the incident of Kathy Sierra type events.
If this happened, Facebook’s authentication service would start down the long, bumpy road that others are travelling (Microsoft Passport, Six Apart’s TypeKey, OpenID). Extending Facebook’s authentication as a service is the next logical thing for them to do once they have established their platform. Authentication is a basic building block for anyone that calls themselves a platform so if you wish to extend the influence of your "social graph," then you need to distribute your authentication methods as well.
Whichever service steps forward to take on the mantle of distributed identity management will also take on a responsibility to remain open, extensible, and free. The issue is, anyone with the scale to support such a broad and distributed service is most likely going to be a business which will need to turn a profit. The trick is how to remain impartial while also extracting revenues to satisfy your investors. Think iTunes/iPod lock-in or the whole net neutrality them my pipes debate.
It may be possible for Facebook to crack this nut and figure how to remain profitable and open at the same time. The real trick is to do it not just for a few years but over the long term. Will Facebook continue to be open if they get acquired? If they get a new CEO?
The debate is not unlike the tension between advertising and editorial in a media company. Above all, running a media business requires absolute editorial independence. It’s a public service. Reuters used to have something called a "Golden Share" and Wall Street Journal had the Bancroft family. Both held the public trust above all else and were protected by short term, profit-motivated demands. Thompson recently bought Reuters and it looks like Fox may buy Dow Jones.
Like a moth to a flame, internet platforms are drawn to management of a global identity. But just as the tycoons of the last age stepped up to publish a newspapers, you need to realize what you’re getting into and do it to give something back to society, not for the money.
PS. I’m committing a big no-no because I’m posting something just as I step out the door for a few days of camping. I’ll get to any comment or other feedback when I return so don’t take my silence as a snub!