A few hours ago, Patch Linden announced the sad news of the passing of Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Research, Inc.; sad news for all of us who care about Second Life, as he had earned the title of the best CEO Linden Lab has ever had, and this is no exaggeration. When he arrived in February 2014, he found the company and its flagship product in disarray.
His predecessor, Rod Humble (an Electronic Arts alumnus), had burnt many bridges of communication and collaboration with Third-Party Viewer developers. Although some PR stunts (such as an appearance on Draxtor Despres’ show) were employed to make him seem approachable and user-friendly, his tenure was marked by a deterioration of the relationship between the users and the company; his handling of the (in retrospect, mostly sensible) 2013 ToS changes was a massive PR fiasco, both internally, as many content creators became enraged, not entirely rightly) and externally, as it led to hostile announcements and (really quite abusive, if not borderline illegal) bans by CGTextures (now Textures.com), Renderosity, and Turbosquid.
Under Humble, the ToS change was preceded by the acquisition of Desura, which did nothing to help LL or SL. Patterns and Blocksworld didn’t fare particularly well. They were, in essence, pet projects that stretched the company’s resources thin. Employee morale was eroded. Furthermore, just like Rosedale and Kingdon before him, Humble didn’t bother to handle the chronic problem of how the ToS and Community Standards were interpreted, applied, and enforced – for many years, this was patchy, sketchy, and often arbitrary and riddled with suspicions of favouritism; there were groups of trolls that harassed and abused other people for years with complete impunity and immunity.
Ebbe was exactly the kind of person LL needed. First of all, he had nothing to do with the AAA game studios. He was, as he referred to himself, a “left-brain / right brain kind of person” who had graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, US with a degree in Fine Arts and concentration in Computer Applications. While everyone in the IT industry knows what Second Life is, not everyone is enthusiastic about it. Ebbe was. He saw potential in it. He liked what its users did and do with(in) it. And he set out to enable them rather than manipulate them and “whale” them.
From the very beginning, he brought a fresh breath of openness and honesty in corporate communications, speaking in a normal, non-condescending, non-patronising, manner. He often came in-world to discuss with people, either at major events, both internal and external (like the annual VWBPE conferences) or casually. He set up a series of town hall-style meetings, “Meet the Lindens” events, in which he actively encouraged the team to get in touch with the user base, etc. He embraced the annual SL Birthday events and made sure he was there, and the Lab Chat sessions (which later evolved into the Lab Gab) became a bit of an institution in LL’s communications.
His openness, though, did cause some unrest once: at a Third-Party Viewer meeting in 2014 (video below; skip to 1:39:00), he mentioned in passing that the Lab were indeed working on a new virtual world (Sansar). This was picked up and blown out of proportion, causing many people, including popular and highly-regarded bloggers, to speculate that this would be the end for SL. As things evolved, SL is still around, and Sansar has been sold off – a rather hard decision, I must say.
Even amidst all the rumours about how “SL 2.0” (Sansar) would “kill off” SL, he fully supported Oz Linden’s team and their continued efforts to improve and further develop the ageing virtual world platform with major technical updates, and never hesitated to step up to the plate and stand up for his employees in the face of angry users.
When communicating SL and Sansar to the Press, he showed genuine enthusiasm and confidence in his company’s products and in the users that give them life and richness. He promoted SL and Sansar, without the ridiculous overhyping and overpromising Philip Rosedale became known for. His sharp business acumen shone as he leveraged the Lab’s years of know-how in handling micro-payments, micro-transactions, and virtual tokens to create Tilia Pay, a subsidiary that provides additional revenue for the Lab. He also guided the company very carefully through its acquisition process.
Finally, he had the strength and determination to swiftly gut the various troll gangs with targeted disciplinary actions. So, he forced them out of SL and its web presences, discouraged the troll gang leaders’ followers, and marginalised them to the point where some of the most notorious abusers have fallen silent, while others have lost their power, connections, and legitimisation – hopefully for good.
In all, Ebbe reversed many bad (and very deeply-rooted) policies of the past, rebuilt trust between SL’s users and the company, brought about many significant technical improvements (project Bento, the move of SL’s infrastructure into the cloud, animesh, and EEP), and created an environment that encourages collaboration rather than suspicion. Very few leaders in any industry are capable of doing that.
Prior to joining the Lab, he had already enjoyed a long, successful career with Microsoft (as Product Unit Manager), Ingenio (as Chief Product Officer), Yahoo! (VP Head of Audience, EMEA and SVP Media Engineering), and BranchOut (COO) (source: Ebbe Altberg’s LinkedIn profile).
In recent months, he has been patently absent from social media, which has caused quite a stir and worry. The last time I remember him appearing in public was when Oz Linden retired earlier this year. Despite his illness, his dedication and determination weren’t diminished at all. LL and SL are in a better position now, thanks to his enthusiasm, dedication, diligence, nous, and hard work. He will be sorely missed, and his successor has a lot to live up to.
I’d like to close this sad piece by extending my deepest condolences and sympathies to his family, his friends, and his colleagues. All of us who care about SL owe him a lot and we’ll miss him even more.