Business in Virtual Worlds, Events, Second Life

Report from Enterprise 2.0: Is there room at the big table for virtual worlds?

Linden Lab is making a fairly daring foray this week, forming a beach head amongst the Microsofts and IBMs and the dozens of start-ups in the Enterprise 2.0 and VOIP space to lay claim to the idea that virtual worlds are ready for business.

OK. Stop right there.

Did you see what happened? I used the word ’space’. Which is to say that I haven’t been in San Francisco more than 24 hours and already I’m drafting business plans on the back of napkins and speaking that weird west coast talk that’s peppered with words like monetize and aggregate but hasn’t yet included ‘making bank’, although maybe Mark Kingdon can use the term at tomorrow’s workshop on the Future of Enterprise (aka the launch of no-longer-to-be-called Nebraska but forever to be remembered as such).

Everyone here is trying to make bank, it seems. Or trying to upload their brains to the Web. Or both.

In what other city would you find Thomas Malaby’s book about Linden Lab under ‘great gift ideas’ in the book store? And has anyone seen this magazine called H+ outside of California? The copy I picked up has “Psychedelic Transhumanists”, “Tweaking Your Neurons” and “Sex and the Singularity” as cover stories.

Where I come from the edges of the country are postcards. Vancouver isn’t really a city – it was created because someone needed to break the monotony of too many mountain vistas, so they threw a few buildings down to break things up a little. And on the other side of the country, Halifax is a sort of coastal postcard slash lobster buffet ($7.99! All you can eat!) but it’s hardly the site of cultist libertarians and venture capitalists. Down here, I often feel like I’ve entered a surreal interpretation of a place, filtered through the lens of optimism/fatalism or just plain Starbucks-induced hyperkinetic glee.

The Big Show
But back to the show, because the Enterprise 2.0 conference kicked off with a bang, featuring dueling keynotes from the Sharepoint guys at Microsoft and Adobe, with some context setting stuff thrown in between for good measure and to keep everyone honest.

Microsoft set their session up as a recreation of ’speed dating’ in which Sharepoint 2010 woos a potential customer by boasting about how sexy it is, what with its social media and blogs and Wikis and Facebook walls (called, um, noteboards or something, but same idea). I couldn’t help wondering why it was the GUY who was pretending he was Sharepoint but then it probably would have played as harassment if he was checking out the feature set on a woman.

Adobe followed it up with the comment that “you may be speed dating, but we’re here for the long-term” and then gave a performance that made me realize where Tom Hale picked up his presentation skills: it was logical, it looked good, it had lots of cool visuals, and yet was slightly swaggery, if there’s such a word.

But the rest of the opening set a broader context. And it all sounded, frankly, like a more expensive version of a virtual worlds/enterprise conference, like the recent 3DTLC, just with better signage, better organization, and better food. (You had to buy your own coffee at 3DTLC which strikes me as a sin of omission worse than putting down the wrong time for a major sponsor’s workshop, which is what they did here for the Lab, although it will all be OK in the end).

And the broader context is this: we have this great ’stuff’, and we know it works, and we’re all evangelizing but it’s tough to explain. Companies don’t always get it although they’re increasingly curious about it. They want to DO something with it but they’re not sure what, and they don’t want you coming in and telling them that your tech represents the end of life as they know it.

See, these are big players. And they’re convinced that there’s value in selling ’social media’ to Enterprise, although just as some people want to rename virtual worlds to ‘immersive media’ they’re just as concerned here that you not call it ’social media’ because it conjures up wasted time and Marxism and Woodstock (seriously, that’s what they said).

Are Virtual Worlds Part of Enterprise 2.0?
So that brings us to Linden Lab who have made the fairly audacious gamble that by being a major conference sponsor and by having a booth and by launching ‘Nebraska’ amongst the noise from the big guys that maybe they can get a spot at the table, just like they want a spot at the “Web 2.0″ table because what is Second Life if not a social media? Or an “almost-Skype” at least?

And the gamble, it seems to me, is positioning virtual worlds in a way that doesn’t narrowcast the technology (um, another California word, narrowcast) in a field where everyone is talking about enterprise-wide solutions, knowledge transfer and sharing systems, and other stuff that seems to imply multi-million dollar price tags.

But maybe it’s not so far off-base as you might imagine. Because the sales line for Enterprise 2.0 is that deeper collaboration, customer and employee engagement, and innovation are the main things facilitated by the Enterprise 2.0 agenda. And what does a virtual environment provide if not those things?

But for that story to have credibility, virtual worlds will need to do more of the stuff that companies like Proton Media are doing with their integration with Sharepoint. Or what IBM did with their integration with Lotus Sametime. We’ll need to see more hooks and applications and ways to integrate, which means that the biggest challenge will be to facilitate an ecosystem of developers – not just content creators, but application-type folks.

But even more so, and it’s a bottom line for the broader E 2.0 crowd (yup, I’m all about bottom lines, and options, and aggregating monetized eyeballs) – these things need to be done in the context of providing solutions to specific business challenges and needs in a measurable way.

Who knows. Maybe a few hours of speeches has addled my brain. Give me terms like ‘lag’ and ‘HUD’ and I’m happy enough, I don’t need a new glossary of terms to sound proficient in.

But if nothing else, being here is giving me the sense of the broader context in which Nebraska will need to live. And a certain amount of relief that virtual worlds aren’t the only place where people are feeling optimistic about where things are headed, yet still casting about for the right path that will get us to the gold that’s in them ‘thar hills.


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