August 16, 2009

Google Engineer Tests WebFinger Client for E-mail Identity Lookup

More than a decade ago, I could open up a simple program that tapped into the Finger protocol, and see individual's information, or their status, such as the last time somebody had logged into their e-mail account, or if they had new messages. Whether it bordered on stalking or was simply informational, it was a good way for me to figure out why people hadn't responded to e-mails I had sent - deducing whether they were just ignoring the account, or if it was, in fact, me, they were ignoring. But over time, as people became more connected, and less comfortable with this, the protocol fell away.

Last week, some enterprising engineers at Google, including those behind the very cool Pubsubhubbub protocol, announced they were looking to bring back the Finger protocol - but in a modernized way. First, the new protocol would leverage HTTP instead of TCP, and second, the goal would be to provide user-defined identifiable information based on public profile data. The project's name: WebFinger.

A scant two days later, we already have the first test client, authored by DeWitt Clinton, which shows how WebFinger could work. (Update: He followed up on Twitter to clarify that this is "WebFinger-like", not an implementation of the official protocol itself.)

While DeWitt says "Your email address probably won't work" yet, it does work for GMail accounts, most likely those where you have enabled a Public Profile. For example, here are the results when you search for me.

DeWitt's First WebFinger Client Search Box

WebFinger Results On My E-Mail, Using DeWitt's Testbed

The results in today's WebFinger-like client vary quite a bit from what we used to see in Finger back in the last decade. In one e-mail I sent a friend in February of 1997, I wrote: "The last time you logged into your e-mail here was at 5:40 pm Sunday. Right? You got mail at 7:07 from somebody else. Check the time." Not too unsurprisingly, I got this response the next day: "I've never felt the need to protect myself....and you're making me doubt my security." Twelve years later, WebFinger is supposed to help find less about data you don't want people to see, and more about helping your e-mail become your true identity, shaping just what they would find.

DeWitt's implementation is just a first step in what we can expect to see from WebFinger. Dewitt also spells out in a post on the site's Google Group that he wants to make sure the project is not overcome with complexity - outlining what he called an even simpler proposal for discovery and response formats. He notes both and e-mail addresses work with his trial, but more may soon. I won't even pretend to say I get the rest. That's why he does what he does and I do what I do.

So the project is in its earliest stages - just getting under way. To check it out, go to