Friday, October 05, 2001

The Joys of Text Expansion The text-expander is a simple program that automatically recognizes alphanumeric combinations and expands them to longer strings. For example, I could set my text-expander to automatically turn generate "zimran ahmed" whenever I typed in "za", or generate today's date if I keyed in "dt".

This unassuming little utility could kill Microsoft's Passport strategy. In its current incarnation, Microsoft wants to host all personal information, such as shopping passwords and addresses, in a central database in Redmond. By using its desktop monopoly to force high registration rates for its services (they way it does now by pushing on its desktop, then pushing hotmail on, and automatically registering people for Passport when the sign up for hotmail) it can goad online merchants into supplying Passport friendly features on their site. By building critical mass on both sides, all merchants would have to offer Passport, consumers would have to sign up for Passport, and Microsoft would take a cut of every transaction online.

That's the plan, anyway. The security dangers of a centralized authentication database have not been lost on those who think about things, particularly when the keeper would be a traditionally security-shoddy company like Microsoft. So they call for a decentralized authentication database, that would keep distribute personal information and so not provide any single juicy target to script-kiddies and crackers.

In my mind, the ultimate decentralized system is the PC itself. Even if one PC was compromised, the cracker would know nothing about anyone else's PC. And although having your info on the hard-disc means you can't remotely access it, this is no big deal for 99% of PC users who aren't even sure what "remote access" is.

The simplest way of keeping this sort of personal data on a PC is in a text-expander. "pw" can expand to a generic password, "pwebay" to an ebay specific one. "addr" can expand to an address, with built in tabs filling out web-forms correctly. The list goes on.

Its pretty characteristic of the technology community to approach something as simple as quick personal information submission over the Web with schemes as hairy as Redmond's bald attempt to illegally further extend its monopoly or the open source community's complex, infrastructure obsessed decentralization services. Canny readers will note that actual customer needs haven't been addressed anywhere in all the debate around Passport. 99% of customers can have their needs simply met by using a text-expander on their desktops. Here's a great one for Macs, and a random (untested) one for Windows.

Bonus: Text-expanders are also helpful to speed up writing (common phrases get reduced to short letter combinations), form letters, personal spell-checks (enter all the words you commonly misspell to have them automatically fixed in all applications), bookmarks (common URLs become short strings) etc. etc. etc.
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