Alistair Fairweather

Sign-ins of the times

2009-12-04 08:24

No one enjoys filling out forms, particularly on the internet. "You want my dog's name now? Come on guys - I just want to leave a comment!" Well, the days of filling out endless forms and remembering dozens of passwords appear to be numbered.

This week the web's old boys club - Yahoo and Google - announced they will allow users to sign into some of their products using their Facebook and Twitter details respectively.

So if you use either of those two services already then you won't have to fill out any forms on Google or Yahoo - just jump straight in. And this is hardly the first example of this - thousands of sites already offer similar services.

What might seem crazy - bitter rivals sharing critical user data - is actually the result of a long evolution in thinking. Big web players have realised three things.

Firstly, the easier they make it for new users to try their services the more likely they are to convert the toe-dippers into daily fans. By letting them sign in using credentials from a competitor they make the fence incredibly low but can still identify the new users when they return.

Secondly, people are annoyed by having to remember so many usernames and passwords. If they offer a trustworthy way to access other sites using their credentials, then they not only make people's lives easier, but they entrench their brand on thousands of other sites. Over time that makes them the centre of their customer's online lives.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the idea of "owning" user profiles is now outmoded. You can know a user's blood type and shoe size but if he stops visiting your site then you're dead.

So the big players are releasing their death grip on user data and concentrating instead on making their tools and services cooler than the next guy's. Attention has finally become more important than data.

But isn't it a bit risky to have all these passwords flying around between sites? Yes, security is still an issue in some cases. And, as always, you need to be wary of just slamming your details into every page that asks for them. So if your internet banking password is also your Facebook password, perhaps you should consider changing it.

But these are trivial challenges by comparison to the e-commerce hurdle that we soared over a decade ago. Now using a credit card online is virtually as common place as using one at the shopping mall.

In fact this budding "universal sign-in" revolution has interesting parallels to modern credit cards. As a universal form of money, regardless of currency, credit cards have acted as a vital lubricant to international tourism and commerce.

The vendor doesn't care where you're from, as long as she trusts the logo on your card, and you don't have to worry about carrying cash or computing exact exchange rates. All that matters is the transaction.

The same is true online - people want to try new services, they don't want to fill out their mother's maiden name for the 12th time. It's the attention that's important, not the barrier to it.

But what happens if, say, Google or Facebook ends up controlling 75% of the globe's sign-ins? It's a legitimate concern, but ultimately a hollow one.

Universal sign-in puts power back into the hands of users. They decide where they spend their attention, and any giant that throws its weight around will quickly be abandoned in favour a newer, more open competitor.

And whatever concerns I may have, I'm just glad I won't have to prove I'm human every time I sign up for a new site.

Send your comments to Alistair

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