IBM and Novell have announced their support for an open-source project aimed at giving users more control over how information such as passwords and financial details are shared across multiple websites.

The two companies, along with Parity Communications, will contribute code to Project Higgins, a concept developed by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The project is managed by the Eclipse open-source foundation.

The future application is envisaged to allow users the simplicity, for example, of changing their addresses across multiple web accounts. Users would control their own information rather than external organisations, IBM said, setting rules for how much personal information businesses such as an insurance company or bank would see.

The Higgins code will support Linux, Windows and other operating systems, IBM said.

On the same front, Microsoft is marshalling support for InfoCard, its proprietary version of a secure identity manager that is scheduled to ship with its next-generation OS, Windows Vista, this fall. InfoCard is a second thrust by Microsoft, which failed to see wide implementation if its Passport authentication program.

But the task of identity management is daunting because of regulatory requirements of different governments, said proponents of the Higgins project.

"We don't believe that one single company, vendor or expert can solve this," said Dan Bailey, an IT safety and security architect at IBM.

The open-source community will be able to use the Higgins code to develop their own specific clients that implement a service-oriented architecture and Web services approach to identity management, Bailey said.

Supporters of Higgins hope that website developers will realise the value that a structured identity application brings users and make their sites compatible with Higgins' APIs (application programming interfaces).

Bailey said the Higgins code should be released by the end of this year, and IBM will incorporate the code into its Tivoli Access Manager and Tivoli Identity Manager software.

Project Higgins is a welcome initiative, but the announcement seems to make light work of the vast procedural and business issues involved with implementation, said Graham Titterington, principal analyst at Ovum.

"My impression of the tone of it is there is an awful lot of bridges you've got to cross and a whole lot of work to be done," Titterington said.