JanRain Offers Universal Logins, Puts Portland at Center of Internet Identity Movement

Are you tired of trying to remember 20 different passwords for all your online accounts? If so, Larry Drebes has a proposition for you. His Portland, OR-based company, JanRain, makes software that gives customers and employees secure, universal logins for the Web, and it enables companies’ websites to accept these logins.

The software works via OpenID, an open-source effort in online identity and authentication that originated in Portland. OpenID is already accepted by some 30,000 websites—mostly smaller sites focused on user-generated content, blogs, and wikis, but it’s also supported by some big players like AOL, Yahoo, MySpace, Google Blogger, and Microsoft. “The whole idea of OpenID is to whittle away at the pain point of having 100 million logins on the Internet,” says Drebes. “This is something that’s going to change every website in the world.”

It’s certainly a big idea (though not unique), and Drebes’s company is at the forefront of the movement, which in recent months has seen Facebook and Google roll out portable and proprietary Web logins. JanRain is also part of a maturing crop of software startups in the Portland area—including AboutUs, Elemental Technologies, Jive Software, Kryptiq, and SplashCast, to name a few—that are having an increasing impact in diverse markets like Internet video, social networks, and healthcare. Not bad for a self-funded startup with 13 employees that is in the process of raising money.

Drebes founded JanRain in 2005, and he has some serious startup chops. He previously spent 12 years in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he co-founded Desktop.com and Four11, the latter of which was acquired by Yahoo in 1997. (Four11’s Web-based e-mail product became Yahoo Mail.) Now Drebes leads JanRain’s software development as the company’s vice president of engineering, working with CEO Brian Kissel.

How did Drebes get into the field of Internet identity? “We were convinced that this was a huge market,” he says. “We saw the trend of social networking. Not only do you have your identity, but you have the data you accumulate at all these places like Google, Yahoo, MySpace, Facebook. As a small company, we were learning more about identity. It’s a huge industry, there are lots of products in enterprise. Every system has a login. We wrote open-source libraries that would allow other companies and websites to become players [using OpenID].”

From there, Drebes says, his team seized the emerging business opportunity. “As a company, we made the change from a technology house for open-source software into revenue-producing products,” he says. Besides eliminating the pain of keeping track of many different logins, JanRain’s offering also lets people take their knowledge and preferences with them wherever they go on the Web, so any service can be better targeted to them. “This will make the experience of Web surfing much more personal,” Drebes says. “It’s also a chance to know your customer better.”

The challenge seems to lie in getting enough key players on board—JanRain’s product is compatible with logins from Google, Facebook, and the like—so as to reach a tipping point in users. And then getting Web companies to pay enough for universal logins to sustain the effort. As for JanRain’s competitors, Drebes cites Mountain, View, CA-based VeriSign (NASDAQ: VRSN), which has its own OpenID product. But he notes that 80 percent of websites that run OpenID now use JanRain’s open-source code. “We want to be one of the big couple that survive and have a sustainable position,” he says, adding that if they do that, the revenue will come. “It’s very disruptive. Once you get that kind of disruption, those products have no roadmap end site.”

Given the relatively recent surge in Portland tech startups, I asked Drebes for his broader take on the city as an innovation cluster. “It’s a pretty good place for business,” he says. “It’s not the Bay Area or Seattle. You don’t have the VC ecosystem, or quite the concentration of tech companies. For fundraising, it’s more challenging.”

But he adds, “From an operating standpoint, Portland has what we need,” in terms of “broadband access and cloud computing…When I moved here [in 2001], the hosting facilities weren’t on par, but that’s a moot point now.” And then there’s the available software talent. “Loyalty is very high, as is the ability to acquire talent fast. There are pools here that can be tapped without having to go to your competitor,” he says. “As markets expand beyond Seattle, the next natural point might be Portland.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in Chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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