getting web sites to adopt a new identity system

My team at Mozilla works on Persona, an easy and secure web login solution. Persona delivers to web sites and apps just the right information for a meaningful login: an email address of the user’s choice. Persona is one of Mozilla’s first forays “up the stack” into web services.

Typically, at Mozilla, we improve the Web by way of Firefox, our major lever with hundreds of millions of users. Take asm.js, Firefox’s new awesome JavaScript optimization technology which lets you run 60-frame-per-seconds games in your web browser. It’s such a great thing that Chrome is fast-following. Of course, Chrome also innovates by deploying features first, and Firefox often fast-follows. Standardization ensues. The Web wins.

With Identity, we’ve taken a different approach: out of the gate, Persona works on all modern browsers, desktop and mobile, and some not-so-modern browsers like IE8 and Android 2.2 stock. We’re not simply building open specs for others to build against: we are putting in the time and effort to make Persona work everywhere. We even have iOS and Android native SDKs in the works.

Why would we do such a thing? Aren’t we helping to improve our competitors’ platforms instead of improving our own? That reasoning, though tempting, is misguided. Here’s why.

working on all modern platforms is table-stakes

We talk about Persona to Web developers all the time. We almost always get the following two questions:

  1. does this work in other browsers?
  2. does this work on mobile?

These questions are actually all-or-nothing: either Persona works on other browsers and on mobile, or, developers tell us, they won’t adopt it. To date, we have not found a single web site that would deploy a Firefox-only authentication system. Some web sites have adopted Persona, only to back out once they built an iOS app and couldn’t use Persona effectively (we’re actively fixing that.) So, grand theories aside, we’re targeting all platforms because web sites simply won’t adopt Persona otherwise. After all, Facebook Connect works everywhere.

When you think about it, is that actually so different from the asm.js strategy? asm.js is much faster on Firefox, but it works on Chrome and any other JavaScript engine, too. Heck, even Google’s DART, a brand new language they want to see browsers adopt, comes with a DART-to-JavaScript-compiler so it works on all other browsers out of the gate. These are not after-thoughts. These are not small investments. asm.js was designed as a proper subset of JavaScript. The DART-to-JS compiler is a freaking compiler, built just so non-Chrome browsers can run DART.

When appealing to web developers to make a significant investment — rewriting code, building against a new authentication system, .. —, cross-browser and cross-device functionality from day 1 is table-stakes. The alternative is not reduced adoption, it’s zero adoption.

priming users is the winning hand

The similarities between Identity and purely functional improvements like asm.js stop when it comes to users. The reason web sites choose Facebook Connect is not just because it works, but because 1 Billion users are primed with accounts and ready to log in. Same goes for Google+ and Twitter logins.

Persona doesn’t have a gigantic userbase to start from. That sucks. The good news is that, unlike other identity systems, we don’t want to create a huge silo’ed userbase. What we want is a protocol and a user-experience that make Web logins better. We want users to choose their identity. We’re happy to bridge to existing userbases to help them do just that!

So, bridging is what we’re doing. You’ve seen it already with Yahoo Identity Bridging in Persona Beta 2. More is coming. With each bridge, hundreds of millions of additional users are primed to log in with Persona. That’s powerful. And it’s a major reason why sites are adopting Persona.

Working everywhere is table-stakes. Priming users so they’re ready to log in with just a couple of clicks, that’s the winning hand.

beautiful native user-agent implementations sweetens the pot

Meanwhile, the Persona protocol is specifically tailored to be mediated by the user’s browser. Long-term, we think this will be a fantastic asset for the Persona login experience. Beautiful, device-specific UIs. Universal logout buttons. Innovation in trusted UIs. And lots of other tricks we haven’t even thought of yet. We’re doing just that kind of innovation on Firefox OS with a built-in trusted UI for Persona.

But let’s be clear: that’s not an adoption strategy. An optimized Firefox UI for Persona will not affect web-site adoption because it does nothing to reduce login friction. In a while, once Persona is widespread with hundreds of thousands of web sites supporting it, and users are actively logging in with Persona on many devices and browsers, Firefox’s optimized Persona UI will be a competitive advantage that other browsers will feel pressure to match. Until then, web site adoption is the only thing that matters.

now you know our priorities

Wherever it makes sense, we’re implementing Firefox-specific Persona UIs. However, when it comes to an adoption strategy, we know from our customers that this won’t help. What will help is:

  1. Persona working everywhere
  2. As many users as possible primed to log in

Those are our priorities.

We know this is different for Mozilla. But it’s quite common for folks implementing Services. What you’re seeing here is Mozilla adapting as it applies its strongly held principle of user sovereignty up the stack and into the cloud.



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3 responses to “getting web sites to adopt a new identity system”

  1. Alice Wonder Avatar

    I’m not a fan of these login agents. They claim safest and easiest but to me, it seems to create a single target for the black hats. They get your persona info or they find a way to compromise the persona system and any of my private info I access through it now belongs to them.

    Sorry but no thanks.

  2. Yehuda Katz Avatar

    As a web developer, I can say without hesitation that native Firefox support for Persona would make me much more likely to adopt Persona. From my perspective. the primary advantage that Persona has over other identity solutions is the prospect of native Firefox support. Please prioritize this.

  3. Ben Adida Avatar

    Hi Yehuda,

    Interesting, you are the first web developer to suggest this. I think it may be because you know too much about the Web 😉

    But seriously, let’s dig in and be more precise. Is there a site on which you’ve considered implementing Persona? What does native Firefox support give you that would push you over the edge? Would you still implement it if you had native Firefox support, but no support on iOS?

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