Is SSO the key to the desktop?

I recently had a cup of coffee with a couple of interesting youngsters from Hamburg, Christian Evers and Philipp Spethmann, who have set themselves a truly impressive goal. They are out to wrest nothing less than the control of German desktops from giants like iGoogle, T-Online, Yahoo! & Co. And they believe the way to do this is by providing consumers a safe and simple way to log onto their favorite websites.

Their company, founded two years ago with money from Ammer Partners, one of Germany's big venture funds (yes, there still are functioning venture funds over here; many of them, in fact), is called "allyve" (pronounced "alive"), and they describe their product as "the keyring of the Internet." What it boils down to is a set of widgets that provide single sign-on - they prefer the term "open authentication" - to a pre-defined list of favorite online sites. This in not the kind of OA that the OATH initiative is propounding; in fact allyve seems to be intent on doing things their own way instead of following the standards path (open or not). Good luck, I say.

However, that is beside the point here. What I found fascinating was Christian and Philipp's approach to getting online authentication to market. Instead of trying to convince other vendors to help them spread the good word, they are putting their bucks (or rather, their venture capitalist friend’s bucks) into building up a partner network of big e-commerce companies. And they are actually going on national TV to plug their system - something not even the behemoths of Identity Management have had the guts to do yet, at least in Germany. ("Viral will only take you so far", Christian says.)

The partner deals are simple: You let us program a widget that gets your customers online with a single click directly from the allyve website, and we'll make sure they keep coming. Oh, and yes, it's free! You don't have to pay us a cent. We'll find another way to refinance ourselves, possibly through ad revenues, possibly by charging some kind of a premium user fee (we'll work out the details later; right now all we want is to achieve critical mass as quickly as possible).They also have plans to market a licensed B2B version of their system which will provide single-point authentication within Intranets and extended enterprize networks; Olympus already uses their system to log on 6,000 employees in Europe. However, the B2C space is where they are concentrating their efforts, and the one where they are achieving their greatest success.

That's probably why their list of partners is already so impressive. They have gone after the big social communities like Facebook, Myspace and Xing, dating services (parship, firend-scout24), big-name web commerce sites like eBay (they'll partner with anyone these days, it seems) and Amazon, and the leading German media companies and newspaper publishers like Axel Springer ("Bild.de") and Spiegel-Online, as well as the leading customer bonus programs ("Payback", "Happy Digits") and the big German airline Lufthansa. These are all high-volume players in their respective fields, and joining allyve doesn't cost squat, so hey, why not?

The result is that Christian and Philipp have more than 85.000 signed-up users, twice the number they had three months ago, and they plan to keep growing by double digits every month for the foreseeable future. They also have plans to grow outside of Germany. One of their first steps was to register patents on their key systems, one for the way that the user's personal data is aggregated and the second on their "deep-link" technology that takes users straight to the desired content page instead of simply logging them in on the operator's homepage. Negotiating the right to do this is the tricky part of each partner deal, but so far none of the big guys seems to be complaining. allyve has even managed to recruit providers like AOL, Yahoo!, 1&1, and Web.de who I would have assumed are competitors. No, says Philipp, they have other things to think about, and if someone wants to bring them oodles of eyeballs, who cares?

Technically, what allyve is doing may be "single sign-on lite" (after all, its simply a bunch of widgets, each one individually programmed to fit the vendor's API), but the result is impressive. And these two young kids are way ahead of the pack in terms of market visibility. So maybe they're doing something right. Who knows? Time will tell.



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