Is SecondLife the Next AOL?

August 9, 2007 at 8:34 am | Posted in Standards, virtual worlds | Leave a comment

AOL flourished as an early provider of a proprietary network, viewer, and content at a time when equivalent open standards did not exist. Once HTTP, HTTPS, HTML, ECMAScript-based scripting, and standardized browsers became prevalent AOL was unceremoniously pushed down an icy slope.

There are many similarities with SecondLife’s lock on virtual worlds, but the differences should be laid out first. Linden Lab is not trying to create a proprietary lock on Second Life. Its only revenue source is real-estate. It is not trying to lock in the virtual browser and, in fact, has placed it in open source with a GPL license. The server will still be proprietary, although that may change over time too. Glyn Moody’s blog reports that Second Life embraces open source products itself, running on servers with GNU/Linux, Apache, Squid and MySQL. SecondLife also allows third party systems to access SecondLife (after a successful reverse-engineering of the system revealed the possibility).

Still, there is pressure for even more openness. The Economist wrote “Lots of companies are setting up shop in Second Life, but some might prefer to have their own worlds, not just islands in someone else’s world, just as they have their own websites.” They mention Multiverse, a competitor that aims to open source the entire experience, including the servers, for a 10% cut of revenue. And they are off to a decent start. The Wall St. Journal reports that Multiverse “raised $4.2 million in Series A backing in May [2007] from investment firm Sterling Stamos Capital Management and a group of 10 angel investors.”

I too believe there is room for a fully open source model. In addition to all the virtual world equivalents of browser standards (browser, web server, HTTP, HTTPS, HTML, scripting) there are many more standards to consider. To name just a few:

  • People: Identity stores including appearance, names and psuedonames
  • Objects and content: Virtual object definitions, inventories
  • Security: Authentication and authorization mechanisms, virtual certificates
  • Communication: IM, gestures (tokenized emoticons)
  • Hyperlinking: Virtual URLs (SLURLS)
  • Economics: Currency, transaction processing handshakes to enable two-phase commit

Perhaps the key will be to follow the internet model and standardize as little as possible to avoid stunting growth. But I believe the virtual world standards will have to go much deeper than the internet did to provide a useful platform given the richness of the interaction model it needs to offer.

All this doesn’t mean Second Life goes away. I believe its value proposition continues for quite a long time as it has a critical mass of virtual users, a mostly open model, and has shown willingness to adapt.

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