There's something special about witnessing innovation as it happens right in front of you. To a large extent, that's what this week's Identity Mashup Conference at Harvard University was about. Sure, there were a lot of interesting panel discussions that dove deep into all sorts of thought-provoking issues that were relevant to identity. But, to be honest, most of that took a back seat to the star of the show: The Higgins Trust Framework.
Not only were the conference organizers still minting the technology in the hours before the event took place, code was hacked and deals were made right there at the event, pushing Higgins the mouse (a mascot with a very long tail hint hint) even further out of his mousehole than he already was when the conference began. Even better, the conference included several immersive elements where the attendees could actually experience the Framework in action and in several different contexts first hand.
But the odd thing about Higgins is how it was willed from relative obscurity to industry rock stardom in the identity world by a handful of almost equally obscure people. And I don't mean that in a negative context. Normally, when some technology lands with a thud on our doorstep, it's dropped there by a big technology company like IBM, Microsoft, Google, Sun, or Intel. But, it wasn't until Higgins was well along its way that at least two major vendors -- IBM and Novell -- started to put their own wood behind it (Microsoft is demonstrating interoperability too, but it's not quite the same level of endorsement that IBM and Novell are giving it).
Who were these people and where the heck did Higgins come from? While eating lunch at this week's conference, I pinned down Mary Ruddy who is vice president of marketing and business development at Parity Communications --- a company that played a critical role in the evolution of Higgins. Ruddy, as it turns out, was one of the key catalyzing forces behind the idea of Higgins. Two of the others were Parity's CEO Paul Trevithick and John Clippinger, a fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society who was also the master of ceremonies at the ID Mashup Conference. Here's the full Q&A (sorry, no podcast):
ZDNet: What's your background? Where did you come from?
Ruddy: I've been mostly involved with applications infrastuctures for customer service and ecommerce. I was at Parametric Technology Corp, then Pegasystems, and after that, OpenOrders which was acquired by IBM. My area of specialty is in bringing new technology products to market. So, it's mostly a software and business marketing background. I was dealing with data driven systems that help automate processes to serve customers but for products sold to enterprises. Systems designed to take friction out of process. Pegasystems did this.
ZDNet: How did that lead you to your involvement with Higgins?
Reddy: There was nothing that enabled you to [take that friction out] for yourself. I may have my college alumni profile, my LinkedIn profile, and my Amazon profile. They're all up there (on the Internet). But they're not linked. No one was willing to more or less open up any of these profiles. And the business people, they have their business development rules. It's a major issue. While they're releasing information to others, there wasn't anything you could do to manage that situation yourself. What's worse is that you have dozens of passwords and accounts and you've given your credit card to lots of merchants and managing it all is impossible. What happens when that credit card expires? You have to remember who you gave it to, and then you have to update them, but you've got all this logins and passwords. I felt like we needed a technology that allowed you to continue keeping this information in separate groups, but in a way that it could also more easily be shared. I wanted to come up with something that allowed you to manage you while also be able to decide what's appropriate when sharing between groups. I was thinking about this in 2003 and I started searching for other like minded technology people who were thinking the same way.
ZDNet: Were you following what was going on with the Liberty Alliance and Microsoft's Passport at that time?
Ruddy: I was aware of Passport, but not aware of Liberty at that time. Pegasystems was doing secure federation for financial systems 20 years ago. So I had been thinking about this sort of role-based access control for a long long time. I was also thinking about this while at Parametric. The issue that kept coming up with identity was how some part of a company would buy an application that involved identity and then, the company would start thinking about where else in the organization that application needed to be integrated, only to find out that that part of organization was using some other identity system. A lot of questions came up about how to integrate multiple identity packages and we ended up using solutions like Netegrity's. But there was also another problem. There was no identity management infrastructure that was built into developer tools. So, everybody was doing it ad hoc as an afterthought. And then came all the integration and retrofitting.
ZDNet: So, you started searching for like minded people.....
Ruddy: There was a conference called Multiples of One at MIT in Fall 2003. It was all about individuals, small groups, and large groups and it involved people from all walks of life including technologists and artists. That's where I got introduced to Paul Trevithick and we had a real mind meld. It was clear that we had a shared vision and skill sets that complimented each other. Paul was at Parity and John Clippinger was his partner and they were at a stage where they had built technology and had taken it beta. But, while it served a need, they also sensed that some of the same ideas could be applied for bigger impact and that's when I started coming up with other applications for the idea. That's when we realized that this piece, this core, should be open sourced because in order for it to realize its full potential, it needed to be broadly adopted and in order for that to happen, it needed to be open and it needed to be extensible (through the open source community).
Around this time, a few months into 2004, John joined the Berkman Center which was interested in his work in edge organizations. Through his work with Paul, there was code there and Berkman was interested in implementing systems along the lines of what John's background was. Not only did they need code, but they needed a community as well. There are a lot of issues --- privacy, legal, (internationally legal too) which is why Berkman was such a perfect fit. So, to we took the core piece code developed at Parity, open sourced it, and created the SocialPhysics.org open source community. Socialphysics gets support from Berkman. We're not "Harvard" but there are a lot things that Berkman does in support of the community and the open source project like this conference and the Identity Gang. Parity still exists, contributes code to the open source project and is a sponsor of the socialphysics.org.
ZDNet: What blossomed out of those efforts?
Ruddy: The community continues to expand all the time. And, through the iterations that we and the community have worked on, we have real working prototypes. And now, were very pleased that some major players like IBM and Novell are seeing value and contributing. IBM has made specific code donations to Higgins and is also providing expertise in evolving some of the core layers. To see what we've done so far and where things stand, you can go to www.eclipse.org/higgins. That is the project site at the Eclipse Foundation and it connects you to the Higgins wiki where you can find pictures of development plan and links to SocialPhysics. There's code there and as you can see, we're just now working on Milestone 4. We're still at pre-1.0 but we're here demonstrating applications that are built on Higgins. We have been building small applications built on Higgins for quites some time. But the thing we're showing today is a prototype i-card broker that lets you manage your information and profiles.
We're also demonstrating how this works in an ecommerce example. It's not production level code but it involves Best Buy and My Virtual Model and it enables you to anonymously project information about yourself and your preferences for what you might buy into Best Buy's Web site. And, if you're interested in buying something, it takes the friction out. Ultimately, your data may not be just your text, but also your Virtual Model body. The Higgins architecture is an extensible data structure that's flexible enough to have [3D] objects like that associated with your personal information. So, you may not want to share your body type with everybody. You're in control and you can pick what, of your personal information gets "projected anonymously" when you go to a site. You could for example say I'm looking for stainless steel refrigerator or I want to go on vacation but I don't have kids and that's it. You give these sites just a tiny amount of information so they can they do a better job of showing you what interests you. Obviously, when it comes time to purchase something, you will have to disclose a bit more about yourself.
ZDNet: What about Microsoft? Kim Cameron, the company's chief identity architect is here and it appears as though they're engaged. But not a supporter like IBM and Novell?
Ruddy: Microsoft is working hard to make the right things happen. Kim Cameron, with his blog and his Seven Laws of Identity have been setting a vision for the characteristics that identity systems need to have to be adopted and successful. What we're demoing is a browser extension that works with Firefox but we will be doing Internet Explorer.
Disclosure: In the spirit of media transparency, I want to disclose that in addition to my day job at ZDNet, I'm also a co-organizer of Mashup Camp and Mashup University. Microsoft, which is mentioned in this story, is one of the sponsors of both upcoming events. For more information on my involvement with these events, see the special disclosure page that I've prepared and published here on ZDNet.