I wonder how much people get paid to be my Web "passface."
Of all the schemes I've seen to simplify Web surfing, the "passface" has to be the funniest. Instead of asking you to type in a password every time you enter a Web site that requires registration, Passcenter.com's patented system presents you with a lineup of faces--faces of real people. Click on the one that's previously been assigned to you and you get in. Click on the wrong face and you're denied access.
After I stopped laughing, I wondered: Are facial passwords some kind of Halloween trick being played on us by the mad venture capitalists of Silicon Valley? But no, they are a serious entry in what is becoming one of the Internet's more intense business battles.
The battleground involves software aimed at solving the problem of having to remember multiple user names, passwords and credit-card numbers as you visit and revisit Web sites. In theory, you fill in your personal information only once and the new products take care of the details any place you go.
As people do more shopping, scheduling and communicating on the Web, pressure is mounting on e-tailers to make things easier. After all, how often would we visit Nordstrom or Hecht's in the real world if they made us bang out a name and password at the front door--then required us to fill out a credit-card application every time we approached a cash register? That's where the Net is now.
But it's not just about making it easier for people. At the Internet World trade show in New York last week, I got an inkling that these "online identity managers" are also about something bigger--the struggle for control of the Web's operating system, or how we move around online. Because the system we use influences where we spend our time and money, some of the world's leading software makers and Web sites have jumped into the fray.
More than a dozen new software products were on display in New York to help me manage my online personas. Microsoft Corp. unveiled its Passport service. Novell Corp. rolled out DigitalMe. Lucent Technologies touted Proxymate. And a string of start-ups showed off products with names like Enonymous, EZLogin and Yodlee. Each has its own plan for making money, such as selling advertising, licensing software to other Web sites or working out revenue-sharing deals with popular Web services.
Unfortunately, testing the tools convinced me that most are clumsy, ineffective systems that don't simplify much yet. But I did appreciate their potential value after registering several of my Web site log-ins at Yodlee.com. Not only does it provide a way to enter Web sites quickly by automatically signing me in, but Yodlee also is among a new breed of aggregators that act like vacuum cleaners, scooping up personal information from various sites and bringing it back into one unified viewing spot.
After registering, I stopped to look at the page Yodlee created. Staring at me was a list of every book and CD I had bought at Amazon.com this year, along with auction merchandise I had recently bid on at eBay and the latest James Cramer column headline from TheStreet.com. Also on the same page were subject lines of recent messages sent to my personal e-mail accounts at Yahoo and Hotmail.
It was helpful to have all that displayed on one page, especially since Yodlee lets me control how it is organized. I liked not having to enter my passwords at the sites I visit regularly, often from different computers. Bookmarks and cookies help, but not all the computers I use have my bookmarks and passwords stored. Yodlee stores them online so I can access my personalized sites from any computer.
In addition to speeding up Web site access, some of the new online identity managers offer "privacy" tools to give users more control over how much information about ourselves we release to each site. Exploring the tools, though, revealed trade-offs between privacy and convenience. Not surprisingly, most vendors seem more concerned with greasing connections between Web merchants and shoppers than with guarding consumer privacy.
Privacy advocates find the aggregators alarming because most of them store passwords in a central database--a hacker's paradise if cracked. Although their concerns are valid, I suspect most consumers will wind up sacrificing privacy in favor of the convenience of services such as VerticalOne.
With the goal of becoming the Web's top financial scooper, VerticalOne displays account balances from different financial institutions. The idea is to make it easier to pay bills, check bank balances, monitor credit-card spending or tally frequent-flier miles from a single site. Disney's Go Network and the Motley Fool are two Web sites that recently agreed to offer VerticalOne to their customers.
You can bet that Yahoo and other big gateways will eventually offer all-in-one viewing services similar to Yodlee and VerticalOne. As they spend more time online, people will want a single place for managing their Web coupons, receipts, gift certificates, e-mail accounts and services yet to come.
The unnerving part is that once the software wizards figure out how to make the doors to Web stores open automatically, the new password systems also could give merchants more powerful tools to record our shopping behavior. Merchants hope to use this data to make smarter marketing pitches.
We should be leery--after all, who wants to be followed by a video camera inside Wal-Mart? Some companies are working on ways to let us shop and buy online anonymously, or at least to leave no record behind. I hope they succeed.
In the end, the Internet's stability as a business platform will require creative ways to ease privacy worries while simplifying Web travel. Not human passfaces, perhaps, but something as simple and even more ingenious.
Send e-mail to Leslie Walker at email@example.com.
TechThursday columnist Leslie Walker will host a live Web chat today at 2 p.m. with Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web and author of the newly released book "Weaving the Web." To participate, go to www.washingtonpost.com.