XAuth, the supposed competitor to Facebook Connect that made headlines yesterday, turns out to be less a competitor and more powerful than anyone realized. We spoke to one of its key creators, Seth Sternberg, who's also Meebo's CEO, to find out more.
XAuth was designed to solve a problem that Meebo itself was having. Meebo, which provides a sort of backbone that Web sites can add to their existing structure in order to rapidly add in social networking functionality, needed to know which particular social nets it should serve up to those users. For example, when a site adds Meebo's toolbar for its users, Meebo needs to work out which of a long potential list of icons to show for the users to connect to, and then to share content with.
Hence the invention of XAuth. It's a central repository that social networks can "ping" to say a particular user is a member. Then, when an external Web site with XAuth connectivity calls upon the system, the site can, in a single check, work out which social nets a user is a member of. Knowing that a user typically uses AIM for Web chatting, it can then choose to offer up that service.
Confused? Then this may clear it up for you: It's not a competitor to Facebook Connect. If Facebook fed its user data to XAuth, and a site with XAuth code built in identified a user as having a Facebook profile, XAuth would hook up the target Web site to Facebook using Connect. XAuth's not designed to replace these simple cross-site login systems, instead it sits in the background and facilitates them.
But XAuth's also cleverer than this, as it's designed to also facilitate easy content-based connections between sites: For example, where one site would like to share its blog feed with another, currently both would have to build special code into their Web presence to make it happen. But if they both had XAuth, the system is already largely in place.
Essentially, XAuth is trying to be a social login facilitator, or clearing house. It's not even designed to make money itself—instead its management will be handed off to an independent body to run, and the hope is that social media sites will use it because it makes the business of sharing user data much simpler. This leads to a better user experience, and that ultimately leads to improved revenues. This, Sternberg explained, is why Meebo didn't keep the XAuth system closed and all its own—if the "big folks" in social media like Google, Facebook adopt and publish data through XAuth, then it'll benefit every other site in the social sphere that uses XAuth.
To keep up with this news in a more real-time setting, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too. (And if you've no idea what that spotty-looking thing is, then find out here.)