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Persistence Pays: The Return of XNS

Remember XNS? It was the platform for simplifying and securing the exchange of data over the Internet that I helped launch just over four years ago. Back then, I was acting as chairman of the non-profit governance organization XNSORG, which was working with XNS's developer, Seattle-based OneName Corporation, to manage and promote XNS. Despite an incredible amount of effort on the part of many people, the stars were not aligned for XNS to succeed, and the 40,000 XNS names that were registered for free have gone unused since then.


Thanks to the dogged persistence of Drummond Reed, who developed XNS's initial foundation, and a few other key supporters, XNS is back, although with many new names and faces (I resigned from XNSORG in May 2004). XNS itself has been split into two parts: XRI (eXtensible Resource Identifier) and XDI (XRI Data Interchange). XNSORG has changed its identity to match, now calling itself XDI.ORG. In surviving the dot-com implosion, OneName has gone through a number of reorganizations and is now Cordance Corporation.


Most important from the standpoint of the 40,000 people who registered personal XNS names, you can reclaim your free XNS name (now called an "i-name") and take advantage of a new privacy-protecting personal contact page that lets people use your i-name to contact you without revealing your email address to spam trawlers. Cordance is sending email to every XNS personal name registrant about this, but between spam filters and the age of these email addresses, the bounce rate on the mail is likely to be extremely high, so don't be offended if you don't hear directly. Instead, consider this article your notification, and if you know anyone else who registered a personal XNS name, let them know they can reclaim and start using it again as well. To start the process of reclaiming your XNS name, visit this page at 2idi, the identity services company acting as the first "i-broker" for i-names. The second link provides legal details surrounding the conversion of an XNS personal name to an i-name.

<http://www.xdi.org/docref/legal/egs-xns-name- conversion.html>

(If you don't want to reclaim your XNS name, just ignore the mail from Cordance and all the data from the XNS registry will be deleted after the 90-day conversion program ends.)

eXplaining XRI, XDI, I-names, and I-brokers -- The changes made in the transition away from XNS and XNSORG improve things in two important ways. First, as we discovered, it's nearly impossible to create a new standards organization from scratch, and since the entire point of standards is that everyone agrees to them, it makes a lot more sense to work with existing standards organizations. As a result, the core technologies that lay under XNS now reside with OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), a non-profit, international consortium that focuses on standards relating to electronic commerce. Second, XNS was split into two separate parts: XRI (eXtensible Resource Identifier) and XDI (XRI Data Interchange). XRI is a protocol for identifying any abstract object in a location-, application-, and transport-independent fashion, and XDI is a Web service for distributed data sharing using XRIs. The first link below explains more about XRI and XDI; the next two links are the formal OASIS technical specifications.

<http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/tc_ home.php?wg_abbrev=xri>
<http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/tc_ home.php?wg_abbrev=xdi>

XRIs come in two forms: machine-friendly "i-numbers" and human-friendly "i-names." I-numbers are a bit like IP numbers in that they're designed to be efficient for use by network routers; however, i-numbers are permanent: once a resource has been identified by an i-number, that i-number will never be used for anything else. (In contrast, IP numbers are constantly being reassigned.) In contrast, i-names are easier for people to remember and use, and they resolve to i-numbers - they're more akin to DNS names. For today, you can think of an i-name as your persistent digital identity. Your email address may change as you switch ISPs or change jobs, your phone number may change as you move, but your i-name will always point back to you because it's a location-, application-, and transport-independent XRI. XDI comes into the picture with bidirectional links between i-names, which are governed by "link contracts." Link contracts can address authority, authentication, authorization, privacy, usage control, synchronization, termination, and more.


All this comes together in the personal contact page service that i-broker 2idi makes available to all i-name owners for free. A personal contact page provides a contact form much like other Web-based contact forms. However, because the personal contact page uses an i-name, not an email address, there's no way a spam trawler can extract an address from the HTML source. And, to prevent automated form fillers, the user can require that the person filling out the form respond to an email confirmation message; it's much like the way most mailing lists require email confirmation of subscriptions to eliminate bogus subscriptions. Of course, if the person trying to contact you has an i-name as well, the email confirmation isn't necessary, since the fact that someone has an i-name means that they've gone through the confirmation process elsewhere. When the form is submitted, your i-broker handles sending the email to you, so you can be sure that everything goes through a trusted third party.

Assuming all goes well (the reclamation program opens at 5 PM Pacific today (25-Oct-04), so I haven't yet been able to reclaim my name officially), you'll be able to contact me via my personal contact page at this link.


We had a service a little like this with XNS, although it was limited to displaying information, much like an electronic business card. The personal contact page is much more useful, and I'm pleased that the folks working on i-names put the effort into making sure that everyone who reclaims a personal XNS name can put it to good use right away.


I-Names for the Rest of Us -- For those who didn't register a personal XNS name back in 2000, you can still get an i-name, though it's not free. For $25, the first 150,000 users can register an i-name for a 50-year period, complete with 1 year of free hosting from 2idi. This Early Global Services program is actually a fund-raiser - XDI.ORG sponsor Identity Commons and XDI.ORG will use all the proceeds after expenses to build open source software for additional identity and data sharing services.

<http://2idi.com/registrar/index.html?referral_ code=@xdi>

One thing that sets today's Early Global Services program apart from our efforts four years ago is that there are a lot more communities interested in participating (and thus encouraging their members to register i-names) with about 15 confirmed (though not yet all listed) and some big names in the wings. I'm pleased to see this level of enthusiasm, though I'm not surprised, since the problems of establishing and maintaining a persistent identity (for objects and digital abstractions as well as people) has become all the more obvious over the last few years.


Looking Forward -- I'm not going to make any grandiose predictions about how everyone and everything will have and be using i-names soon. Any new technology faces an uphill battle for acceptance in today's Internet, and although the combination of XRI and XDI offers some compelling features, people dislike change, even when it's for the better. Nonetheless, I wish the best of luck to Drummond and all the others who have poured untold hours into the effort to provide the world with a method of identifying abstract objects and sharing data between them in a secure, accountable way. If that's a topic that interests you as well, I strongly encourage you to check out what XDI.ORG is up to.


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