The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
A few weeks ago at IIW, Dick Hardt of Microsoft, Brian Eaton of Google, and Allen Tom of Yahoo! presented WRAP, a competing specification to OAuth. WRAP is a smart specification that includes a lot of good and useful ideas. If it was presented as a white paper on how OAuth could be made better, I would be singing a very different tune. It is a very good protocol draft which has clearly learned many lessons from two years of hands-on OAuth experience. I encourage anyone working in this space to read and study WRAP.
WRAP started as an effort to create a profile of OAuth based on the OAuth Session extension (which has never matured beyond a first draft). It had two main requirements: make it easier for client developers to use the protocol, and make large scale deployment easier and more efficient. Their effort was based on a simple fact, that OAuth does not adequately support large providers. While many people disagree with this statement, I tend to agree with it. I also agree that many people are struggling with the protocol, but the solution is better libraries not a new protocol (have you tried to implement TLS on your own lately?).
From conversations I had with the WRAP authors, it was clear that their intention was not to replace OAuth, but to supplement it until (and if) OAuth is changed to support their use cases. At the end, due to internal corporate politics and product release schedule, Microsoft and Google decided to ship WRAP implementations and positioned it as a complete solution available as an OAuth replacement. As of now, they intend to focus on enterprise products, an area OAuth is not widely deployed in.
The problem with pointing fingers here is that no one was doing it out of malice, but out of a combination of convenience and ignoring the big picture. The bottom line is that the OAuth community who created the original specification doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, we have a few individuals who carry enough recognition to make others follow them as if they represent a community. I have fought against associating WRAP with the OAuth brand for the past 6 months, but all it took was for me to leave the IIW session early for ‘OAuth WRAP’ to emerge.
I can only guess that the decision to assign the OAuth brand to WRAP was made in haste in light of the warm reception WRAP received at IIW (because as I stated earlier, it is a smart proposal). It looks like those in the room feared that WRAP might damage the accomplishments of the OAuth community and undermine its adoption. For the companies behind WRAP this was a clear win as it positioned their proprietary (even if open) technology as an extension of a well-recognized community brand.
To be clear, WRAP cannot be considered a profile of OAuth no matter how hard one tries. WRAP is closer to proprietary protocols from Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! than it is to OAuth. On top of that, existing OAuth libraries are completely useless for implementing WRAP. It is a different protocol, not a profile. In addition, the last remaining artifact of the OAuth community, the Google group, was never included in the discussions or decisions around WRAP, only informed of it.
It is important to note that the WRAP authors have recognized that their work is not an OAuth profile and did not push for it. Brian Eaton is the second most active contributor to the IETF work , Dick Hardt clearly communicated his employer’s needs and the reason why OAuth is not suitable for them at this time, and Allen Tom has reinforced Yahoo!’s commitment to OAuth and its plan to deploy OAuth 2.0 when a stable draft is published. And as I stated earlier, WRAP is a worthy protocol, just not suitable for the OAuth label.
One of the questions I am asked repeatedly is how to make an OAuth extension official. My answer is that there is no such thing, but if you are looking for recognition and quicker adoption, try to convince someone with streetspec-cred to put their name on it. In OAuth’s case, it means Blaine Cook, Chris Messina, or me. I am not trying to dismiss the important work of the many people who made significant contribution to the specification, but am only pointing out that as far as the developer community is concerned, these are the three people “running” OAuth. And contrary to popular believe, the three of us are not that well-coordinated.
Needless to say, associating WRAP with OAuth was not a good decision. Beside the confusion it created among developers, it also diverted critical resources away from the current work being done by the IETF OAuth Working Group on OAuth 2.0. It also made it more attractive for other companies to consider deploying WRAP to replace proprietary solutions. Now, with the OAuth brand attached, it offers an easy “Open” win, without having to help move the 2.0 effort forward.
OAuth WRAP is just one illustration of the demise of the OAuth community.
The community has disintegrated shortly after the specification was completed. Lately, it was evident in the lack of participation in the IETF effort, and the fact that only a single named author from the original OAuth Core 1.0 specification has bothered to read the draft of the upcoming OAuth 1.0 Protocol RFC. This informational RFC is being published to provide a better specification for OAuth 1.0, as well as a more durable historical record and a point of reference for the upcoming OAuth 2.0.
Over the past 2 years I have received many comments and complaints about the quality of the OAuth Core 1.0 specification, and I completely agree that it is a poorly written document. I have also collected a list of errors and omissions which make implementation difficult. For the past 9 months I have spent many hours working on a brand new version of the specification, written from scratch. This was originally published as the Editor’s Cut edition. This draft has now gone through 7 revisions and matured into a document I am very proud of. It is without a doubt a superior write-up of the OAuth Core 1.0 protocol.
And yet, out of 20 listed authors (excluding myself), only one read the draft and provided feedback.
I started writing this post because I was frustrated at how my hard work is being abused in one case, and ignored in another. But as I was writing, it became clear to me that being angry is really pointless when that anger is directed at something that no longer exists.
The IETF will move forward and work on a replacement for OAuth Core 1.0. If the OAuth brand holds over the next few months and continues to offer value, the new work will emerge as OAuth 2.0, and with an ‘Internet Standard’ label, should be able to counter any negative impact as well as compete with proprietary solutions like WRAP. I am also encouraged by the promise made by the WRAP authors to submit the specification as input for the IETF WG, for incorporation into OAuth 2.0, and am looking forward to it.
There is an important lesson here, one that should be learned by other open communities developing specifications. Without a lasting governance structure these communities cease to exists, and their brand becomes a free-for-all to exploit. This is something I hope the Open Web Foundation will attempt to improve, to avoid the need to duplicate the OpenID and OpenSocial experiences and create a foundation for each specification community.
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