IBM has changed its mind and joined the Liberty Alliance - a consortium of IT companies aimed at developing standards for managing user identities. It now joins, among others, Oracle, Intel, Sun, HP, AOL, Novell, Sony and VeriSign.

Liberty Alliance was established in 2001, but IBM was initially reluctant to back the consortium, choosing instead to pursue its own identity management standards.

As the alliance gained momentum, however, customer demand has pushed IBM to work with itsspecifications. IBM signed a deal earlier this year with Orange to create a single sign-on service for Orange's 50 million cellular phone customers that complies with the Liberty Alliance specs. The deal was touted by the consortium as a vote of confidence in its work.

"We were just meeting Orange's needs," IBM spokesman Ron Favali said about that project's Liberty compliance. "IBM joining Liberty now is the next logical step in that progression."

IBM plans to support "a broad range of federated identity specifications across its Tivoli identity management product line," including its own Web Services Federation specification, the company said. IBM drafted WS-Federation, a rival federated identity specification, in conjunction with Microsoft and BEA.

Karla Norsworthy, IBM's vice president of software standards, said IBM believes specification convergence is in customers' best interests, and will work with other vendors and standards groups toward that goal. WS-Federation is part of a broader group of IBM-backed Web services protocols, known collectively with the prefix "WS". As IBM works with the Liberty Alliance, its goal will be to ensure that any standard adopted for identity management shares a common architectural framework with other Web services specifications, Norsworthy said.

Still, IBM will follow where its customers lead, she said: "IBM has a rich history of working with our customers to support what they have. Now that we have real customers wanting uptake on the Liberty specifications, we'll support them."

IBM's decision to join Liberty could be an important first step in converging the wide variety of security, messaging and identity management protocol specifications that will be used to do distributed computing over the Internet, said Ronald Schmelzer, senior analyst at ZapThink. "We hope that there is convergence," he said. "With IBM joining Liberty Alliance, it seems that now there is at least some effort being made to doing that."