Business in Virtual Worlds, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Living in Nebraska: Virtual World Smackdown

Linden Lab will launch its ’stand-alone solution for enterprise’ next week in San Francisco and we’ll get all the details about how companies and schools and secret government agencies can run their own little mini-grids behind firewalls and wear suits and ties or naval uniforms while reviewing PowerPoint presentations.

The folks over at 3DTLC cornered Amanda Linden on her recent Second Life blog post about work avatars, which I think was meant to leverage the Gartner data and say something along the lines of “hey, other people are taking avatars seriously for work, isn’t that great?” but became a community pile-on instead, parsing the many meanings of wearing a suit and tie to the office, and then more broadly the purpose of Second Life, and then it trailed off into all kinds of sub-clauses and conversations.

Amanda was left mixing metaphors with 3DTLC:

“Sometimes I think about Second Life like Las Vegas,” she said. “Las Vegas is where you can go and play, or you can go and work, as it’s one of the largest conference centers in the world – there’s a lot to do there, and all this benefits from each another, the balance between work and play. The comparison, though, is a dangerous thing. I think the bottom line is that Second Life is a place where you can work, and you can play. It’s a place where you can enhance and improve your real life. Whether you come there to attend concerts, play games, meet with a community or attend religious services, or come in to work, I think Second Life is a large enough space to accommodate all of those things. Second Life is about the size of Rhode Island in terms of land size. It’s a big place.”

So, Second Life is like Vegas, except we shouldn’t compare it to Vegas, we should actually compare it to Rhode Island.

Virtual World Smackdown
OK, it’s kind of unfair – the 3DTLC folks were trying to figure out the message being sent by the talk about work avatars and it was a pretty interesting thread. They wanted to understand the connection with the coming launch of a corporate solution, once called Nebraska, (and for some of us probably always Nebraska it will be, unless the new name is a real zinger like, hmmm, maybe iWorld or iAvatar or iWork although they were probably already grabbed by Apple.)

Personally, I think the real storyline here is about competition. It’s not about ’safe’ grids or work avatars or dress codes or being disconnected from Las Vegas. The competition has those things already. And some of those safe grids with dull avatars look really crappy, like Forterra. And some of them look pretty sweet, like Protosphere. (I won’t mention Qwak because I can’t remember it’s new name, and there’s those Flash/Unreal mash-ups like 3DXplorer and Web.Alive and all those online conference products, but those aren’t really worlds, they’re Flash interfaces with cartoons, kind of like Electric Sheep tried to do with their full-frontal (fully clothed) lesbian chat space.)

But the Lab isn’t talking competition. Believe me. I’ve asked them about it. Several of them.

“How do you compare to, say, Forterra” and no matter which of them I ask it’s always pretty much the same answer, the kind that Amanda gave:

“”The blog entry wasn’t about the competition at all,” she said. “It was about Second Life and about the kinds of things that we as a community need to do to accelerate adoption. It was exclusively focused on us and our community. Competition is healthy and a great thing, and we are in the very early days in terms of virtual worlds penetration in the marketplace. Nobody has sized the market, and nobody has sized the projected growth of the market. Competition is very healthy in new markets, and especially in new markets, because it catayzes innovation and growth.”"

Which is kind of stunning when you think about it and I’ve had the same response every time: we don’t acknowledge the competition, the market is big enough for all of us anyways, and the market will be so huge who cares, except that we don’t know how big the market is, so we’ll all find out together!

How can you spend a year and countless man-years of time putting together a solution for enterprise and not have any idea how large the market is? Or maybe they know but aren’t saying? Can’t they extrapolate from other data or something? How about something like this:

“We know that enterprise spending on Web 2.0 technologies will grow strongly over the next five years, reaching $4.6 billion globally by 2013, with social networking, mashups, and RSS capturing the greatest share. We believe there’s a place for immersive technology as a key value-driver in this marketplace, because it allows companies to create a collaborative space within Web 2.0 and enterprise systems that can not be achieved with any other technology.

What differentiates Linden Lab from the competition is, frankly, our users. In fact, if you think about it, Second Life itself represents one of the most robust development APIs in the industry today. The scripts, content and applications that have been built for Second Life represent terrabytes of data – terrabytes more than other platforms could create even if their internal developers did nothing else for 1,000 years.

So, Nebraska is not a technology or a server so much as a platform which allows companies to securely plug-in to the largest ecosystem of developers and content in the virtual world industry today.

What does this mean for industry? It means that we have proven technology, proven solutions, and a proven development community. We’re able to support a wide range of use cases and can get you up and running and creating value for your company in, literally, weeks if that’s what you need. And we’re able to adapt it to your specific business goals effectively and quickly.”

I mean, seriously. Screw the competition – how can they keep up with 10,000 coders and content developers and a couple hundred service providers and hundreds of use cases?

The Target Market Is NOT Enterprise
The target market for Nebraska won’t be enterprise.

I have to give Amanda and the folks at the Lab a free pass from criticism for now. Their hands are tied until they can get this thing out into the market. I know there’s stuff they want to say and will say and everything will start to make sense in a few days, and even if some people don’t agree with the approach, at least it will be out there, and in the meantime they need to tiptoe around making any big claims about Nebraska or even in describing what it is. As an associate of mine says: “We need to keep our powder dry”.

But it seems to me that the real target for Nebraska will be content creators, application developers, and channel specialists.

Nebraska will have, as I say, something that none of the other platforms currently offer: a truly deep, rich, and robust API. When the MediaAPI comes, that API will only become more incredible. And the API is the thing that allows you to access 3D content (oh, and maybe even meshes some day), and scripts, and hooks in to Web sites, and animations, and, sure, work avatars with nice hair.

The API has been running now for years. What’s MISSING from the API is the ability to integrate it, and the platform its connected to, with enterprise systems like LDAP for authentication and Exchange servers and whatever else there is that makes IT people all excitable.

What’s also missing are channels. We have work, and we have education, but we don’t really have one specifically for health, or automotive, or energy and sustainability.

For Nebraska to blow the competition out of the water, and for this to make sense for enterprise, will require a well organized and supported developer community – whether it’s the folks making clothes on the Main Grid or some guy in his basement hacking a new interface to corporate Nings or whatever they have back there behind the firewalls.

It will be the serendipitous inventions that come out of creating a pool of opportunities attached to use cases and needs that get the creative juices flowing again. And I can tell you – those game-changing type apps, the Scion Chickens for the corporate world, will not come from wandering around with work avatars scratching our corporate chins – they’ll come because Second Life has managed to attract an incredibly broad and diverse range of incredibly talented people on a platform that prizes and values creativity.

The Main Grid
For this to work, the Lab has a two-fold challenge: to nurture a development community so that enterprise has a full range of solutions ‘out-of-the-box’ to meet their different use cases (and the ability to rapidly change and customize those offerings); and to keep the Main Grid growing.

Because I’m convinced that the ‘world’ which is Second Life isn’t just a good starting place for business before they decide whether they REALLY want to hide behind the firewall or not (and most of them probably SHOULDN’T – there’s too much benefit in being part of the larger community) – but it’s the source of rich and enduring value both to casual users, content creators, and the larger ecosystem.

Innovation and invention isn’t going to happen so easily behind the firewall: it will happen in the often messy and chaotic world which is Second Life, where a chicken or a mutating flower is more than just some cool new way to spend some time, they’re actually little insights into a platform in which possibility and value comes because we have a canvas for self-expression.

Whether we’re wearing ties or not.


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