OpenID is one of those web technologies I would love to love: it addresses a need, seems pretty well thought-out, and all the cool kids are doing it. But the fact is, it’s still a bit too hard for what it’s trying to be. When I first heard about OpenID, I read about it, and didn’t quite get it. People kept talking about it, so I kept going back to read about it, and it still mystified me.
Big players started adopting it (AOL, Yahoo), so it seemed like it was here to stay, but I still didn’t have the incentive to get over the learning curve. Earlier this week I visited yet another site that encouraged me to get an OpenID, and I decided I would finally cross OpenID off my list of technologies I should at least understand and probably use.
The simplest way to use OpenID is to pick a provider like Yahoo, go to their OpenID page, and enable your Yahoo account to be an OpenID. This in itself was a little complicated, because when I was done, I got to a page that showed me my “OpenID identifiers”, which had one item in it:
What!? What is that, what do I do with it? Am I supposed to paste that into OpenID fields on other sites? Are you kidding me? Also, in the text on that page is a stern warning:
This step is completely optional. After you choose an identifier, you cannot edit or delete it.
(Emphasis theirs). So now I have a mystifying string of junk, with a big warning all over it that I can’t go back. “This step” claims it’s optional, but I seem to have already done it! Now I’m afraid, and I’m a technical person — you expect my wife to do this?
Luckily I can choose to enable other identifiers, so I also enable my flickr account as an OpenID.
Since I am a technical person, I’ve learned that OpenID supports delegation. That’s a way to have your website act as an OpenID simply by adding some HTML to your page. The HTML points to another OpenID behind the scenes. That way, I can use nedbatchelder.com as my OpenID, and later be able to change who is actually hosting my OpenID.
Simon Willison shows the simple way to delegate your OpenID on your home page. You need the id you just got from your provider, and you need a URL for the provider’s server. Oh, bad news: Yahoo won’t say what their server’s URL is. I can’t delegate to Yahoo. Why? Don’t know. Time to get another provider.
So I go to a more savvy provider, get an ID and a delegate server URL, edit my page, and I can’t log in to my desired site. I must have messed something up. A good debugging tool for this is to log in to jyte.com. Since it was built by JanRain, the company behind a lot of OpenID, they helpfully provide very geeky error messages if the OpenID login fails for some reason. Turns out I had omitted one place in the HTML that I had to put my user id. Once I fixed that, all was well.
But what have I really gained? Ted Dziuba exuberantly rants about OpenID, since it is why he hates the Internet, and his points are accurate: OpenID is still really difficult, and doesn’t gain you that much.
Stefan Brands rounds up lots of issues with OpenID, and I think they need to be taken seriously. OpenID may be one of those Internet technologies that will be fabulous among the savvy and well-intentioned, but falters when spread to the wider population on the web.