Last fall Mozilla Labs also commissioned Chris Messina, at the time a researcher in residence at Mozilla Labs, to design a Web browser that would manage the other half of online identity–a user’s social graph. In Messina’s mock-ups, a user can interact with people on the Web in ways that go beyond what OpenID or Facebook’s OpenGraph currently offer. “The idea of a social browser is important to me because it’s the single point of integration for all websites,” says Messina. “It’s the one thing that knows who you are across all social experiences.”
Messina’s designs envision a browser that lets users “follow” other users by viewing all of their relevant information streams–Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc.–collected into a single browser tab stamped with that user’s profile picture. A similar interface could also be used to control exactly what personal information other people and websites have access to. This could allow, for instance, a user to change her shipping address across any number of sites at once, or to control which version of their identity a particular groups of friends can access. “I’m not interested in the [Mark] Zuckerberg approach, where privacy doesn’t exist anymore,” says Messina, referring to the CEO of Facebook.
Both Facebook and the Mozilla Foundation will face challenges in pushing their own vision of online identity. John Mitchell, a professor of computer science at Stanford, says the most significant barrier will be the adoption of suitable protocols. Before such protocols can be standardized and rolled into, for instance, the next version of HTML, Web developers are going to have to be willing to experiment.
“What I’ve seen from a lot of companies is an attempt to guess the end solution and build that only,” says Mitchell. “It would be better if, instead, we had an open architecture where people could try many different approaches.”
If the new Mozilla software and Messina’s designs are sufficiently popular with users and developers (not to mention the influencers who sit on the boards of standards committees like the World Wide Web Consortium), then the foundation’s technology could find its way into the regular release of Firefox and perhaps, ultimately, into other browsers.
To Messina, just drawing up the blueprints for such technology was an important first step. “We’re further away from the death of the password than I’d like to be, but it’s a nice goal to aim for,” he says.