PALO ALTO, Calif. – It’s an old idea: a central sign-in that would let you log into many of your favorite Internet sites, eliminating the hassle of remembering multiple passwords.
Microsoft’s Passport came and went. Google’s OpenSocial and the independent OpenID group are out there but haven’t picked up many high-profile partner sites. Now Facebook is trying – and so far succeeding – with Facebook Connect, which lets you use your Facebook credentials to log into sites across the Web. Since launching in December, the service has grown from 26 Web sites to more than 8,000.
Netflix, Citysearch, Vimeo, CNet, CNN, Showtime and many other top sites put the Facebook Connect tab on their pages – to encourage new sign-ups and greater use by Facebook’s 200 million members. For Facebook, it’s a way to extend its reach and bring more of the Web to the Facebook community.
When sites work with Connect, “They understand more about you, they know what you like, who you are, where you’re from, how old you are, what gender you are, and now they can custom tailor the site to make it more engaging,” said Ethan Beard, Facebook’s director of platform marketing.
Connect isn’t the first time Facebook has tried to open up its network to other sites. The ill-fated “Beacon” program sent user data to advertisers without member consent. It was quickly pulled back when members howled in protest. With Connect, Facebook has learned from its mistakes, said Charlene Li, an analyst with the Altimeter Group.
Beacon “felt like a violation,” said Li. “This time, it’s clear you’re opting to share the information with the site.”
Facebook said participating Web sites only get to store user information for 24 hours – it must be deleted after that and cannot be shared. Still, partner sites are thrilled to get access to one of the Web’s largest communities.
Video-sharing service Vimeo said 50,000 people have used Facebook Connect to log in since it began offering it earlier this year – 40,000 of them new users.
“Our sign-up process is easy, but with Connect it’s one less text box, and that makes a difference for people,” said Andrew Pile, Vimeo’s director of development.
Video-rental service Netflix grants Facebook members access to their Netflix accounts to talk about movies and share reviews.
“One of the first topics that always comes up during dinners with friends is great movies,” said Mike Hart, director of engineering for Netflix. By offering the Connect feature, “We enable great social interactions.”
Facebook members can’t use their ID to sign up for Netflix service because that is a more detailed registration that requires credit cards, said Hart. Nor can Facebook members add movies to their Netflix rental cue – yet. “We hope to add that in the near future,” he said.
Social Gaming Network produces iPhone games, including iGolf, which simulates a golf swing. Via Connect, folks logged into Facebook can play along.
The company’s more advanced Agency Wars is a multiplayer game that charges a fee to advance to higher levels. CEO Shervin Pishevar said sales have been stronger through Facebook than iTunes “because you can challenge and attack and align yourself with friends on Facebook.”
Microsoft had the same idea a decade ago when it started the Passport program: Make it easier on users to interact with sites and store their credit card information in one place. It gave up in 2004 when many sites – most notably eBay – quit the program.
“Microsoft was 10 years too early,” said Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst for Forrester Research. Now, though, “The influx of people using these social networks is reaching a momentum like we’ve never seen before.”
Both companies and consumers have a clear reason to want to participate, he said. For Web sites like Vimeo and Netflix, adding Connect is simple, Li said. “They don’t have to go out and build a social network, and in turn, they get more engaged users.”
For Facebook, she said, it’s about extending the Facebook experience beyond communication and quick games, things that Facebook does really well.
Beard concurs. He said Connect has taken off because, “We understand that not all the sharing will take place inside Facebook. We want to give users the power to share anywhere, wherever they are on the Web.”
Of course, that also creates the potential for clutter as folks post even more material to profiles. But Gartner analyst Andrew Frank said there are “ways of filtering so not every action shows up.”