Those of us who have been around in Second Life for a while are aware of Linden Lab’s ambition to attract big corporations to Second Life. When the Second Life “bubble” had reached its maximum diameter (and then met the sharp end of a needle, with predictable results), Philip Rosedale, then CEO of LL, made claims that managed to raise the eyebrows of even the most enthusiastic users. In May 2007, he told the Guardian (emphases mine):
What we are saying is SL is the next worldwide web and so every computer has to do 3D perfectly and we are not there yet. We are probably one PC development cycle – so 18 months – away from where every machine with Vista or Mac OS X should be able to run SL. I think we started a little bit early with SL but the sheer enthusiasm that people have had about co-creating the world has sustained it. What is amazing is that we are not even there yet. This is only the beginning of the 3D web and SL.
This reminds me a bit of the days when a more computer-savvy cousin of mine was telling me about how we’d have multiple desktops on a cube that we’d rotate on the screen and move applications and clipboard contents from one side of the cube to the other. Now, the desktops-on-a-rotating-cube is but a gimmick implemented in feature-rich desktop environments like KDE, Gnome 2 (sorry, Gnome 3 is crap), MATE and Enlightenment; impressive, but not many people use it, because it’s not particularly useful.
“SL is the next worldwide web” – quite a bold claim and I’m sure many in the industry must have chuckled a bit when they read this interview. OK, I’m throwing my “good girl” mask away and I’ll be blunt about it: this claim was pure bullshit and it makes one wonder if Mr. Rosedale is in touch with reality. Why did the worldwide web succeed?
- It can be used on anything: from a low-spec cellular phone to a supercomputer.
- It’s open (source): everyone has access to it, to its inner workings and so everyone can set up servers, websites, the works.
- It’s not controlled by a single company that monopolises it, so users don’t feel enslaved or trapped in “walled gardens” and also this “anarchy” that has characterised the worldwide web for so long has meant it simply cannot be taken down or become extinct just because an ISP ended up pushing up daisies.
How does Second Life compare to this?
- It has always been demanding, hardware-wise. Much like high-end computer games, it practically dictates that users have a reasonably decent machine (nothing wrong with that, mind you) to run it with at least the basic visual “bells and whistles” that’ll make it look halfway decent – and if you want it to look really good, then you need a seriously good machine.
- Its server-side code is proprietary and closed.
- It is controlled in a monopolistic way by Linden Lab – and with the varying degrees of compatibility w.r.t. mesh and sculpts implementation among the various virtual world platforms, the abandonment of the “Hypergrid” and the lack of proper content export tools (for which we can also blame – in part – the in-world content creators and their copybot-related paranoia), it’s the archetypal walled garden, in which users are essentially trapped and can’t easily take their creations and inventories to other platforms.
- If LL bites the dust, Second Life is finito (and, along with it, all the sims that its users have created with so much effort).
So no, Second Life is not the next worldwide web. Perhaps a virtual reality realm sometime in the future (in 10 or 20 or 30 years ago) will absorb the web – but still, it’ll need to have the qualities that the worldwide web has and Second Life doesn’t.
It is these qualities that have given the worldwide web the massive user base it has. Now tell me: where are big corporations more likely to spend money in order to have their presences? On a virtual world with approximately one million real users (and a gazillion alts, bots and sockpuppets) that is in slow decline or on the worldwide web, with the hundreds of millions of users (who can be potential clients and personnel for the corporations)? I think the answer is a no-brainer and I wonder how LL’s top execs kept deluding themselves into having such unrealistic expectations and pursuing a pipe dream, wasting time and money on it instead of enhancing what they had.
There are also a few more reasons for which SL cannot be the platform of choice for big corporations:
- Second Life is – at least in theory – all about privacy, whereas big corporations want to have access even to the most trivial information about us, so that they can profile us and (a) fill our inboxes and browsing experience with spam, (b) sell our data to “national security” organisations or other entities, depending on who makes the best offer. To be honest, I’d really like to see Mr. Humble, who was so vocal about privacy and avatar identity in his talk with Draxtor Despres, tell us where LL stands in the wake of the PRISM scandal.
- When SL was marketed as the platform for corporate presences, it simply was not ready. Sculpts were still at a primitive stage, there was no mesh support and, well, prim-based stuff simply doesn’t cut the mustard.
- Its very nature (an internet-based virtual world environment) means that there are serious technical limitations w.r.t. the quality of the graphical representation of a company’s goods (cars, for instance). Why would a car company spend money on a corporate presence in Second Life and on making low-quality graphical representations of its cars that will be seen by perhaps 5% of SL’s limited userbase instead of making a few nice videos and uploading them to its Youtube and Vimeo channels and embedding them on its website?
So, if LL’s management wants to show that it’s in touch with reality, they need to forget this pipe dream – at least for now. Otherwise, they’ll repeat the same mistakes they’ve made numerous times in the past and, to quote Horace, “bis repetita non placent.”
- Today Second Life, tomorrow the world – Philip Rosedale interview to English newspaper “The Guardian”
- The Drax Files: World Makers [Episode 7: Rod Humble] on Youtube