Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Second Life

Second Act for Second Life? Adobe, Apple and Linden Lab

Linden Lab, under the guidance of folks like Tom Hale (ex Adobe) have become less like Adobe, and more like Apple – or that’s the premise of Ari Blackthorne in a well thought out post that lifts off the current controversy caused by Steve Job’s decision to exclude Flash from the iPad and iPhone platforms.

Now, for those of you who don’t follow the tech or business pages, the decision to exclude Flash from Apple’s mobile devices was positioned as a purely technical one by Steve Jobs in a compelling argument for the decision:

Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.

The avalanche of media outlets offering their content for Apple’s mobile devices demonstrates that Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content. And the 200,000 apps on Apple’s App Store proves that Flash isn’t necessary for tens of thousands of developers to create graphically rich applications, including games.

New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

His full argument seems, well, so LOGICAL. But calling Adobe a closed system versus the “open” one of the iPhone or iPad (by which Jobs means Web standards) is a bit of a pot calling the kettle black. The Web standards may be open, but everything else about the platform is closed.

But Ari’s point isn’t to compare Second Life to Apple because of the closed or open nature of the systems, but rather to make the point that whereas Linden Lab may once have been more like Adobe, providing tools to creators, they are now more like Apple, with a singular focus on the users.

There Are Always Middle Men
It’s a compelling case.

Linden Lab has clearly moved from the days of Philip, which were focused on an intense belief in the TOOLS of production – give a community robust ways to create content and innovation (and success) will arise. Those are the days documented by Thomas Malaby in his book Making Virtual Worlds:

The near ubiquitous appeal to ‘tools’ around Linden Lab….is consistent with a deep commitment to and acknowledgement of Second Life as a domain for empowered users to create content with a minimum of vertical direction or control. Just like the users of the Whole Earth Catalog, Second Life users are given access to tools, and this issue of access (often glossed as “open participation” around Linden Lab) was of continuing importance.

Malaby quotes Philip Rosedale (emphasis added):

We will not move in a direction that will restrict Second Life as to the number of people it can conceivably reach. This means that we will struggle to have Second Life work in any country, be available to anyone wanting to use it, and work well on a wide range of computing devices. As another example, we will not restrict Second Life by adding constraints which might make it more compelling to a specific subset of people but have the effect of reducing the broadest capabilities it offers to everyone for communication and expression.

Second Life more like Adobe, perhaps, in the sense that Adobe focuses on the tools of creation with minimal interference on the end consumers of that creation. And this shift evident in the sense that Second Life has reduced its broadest capacities in order to appeal to a specific subset of users: the Philip Rosedale paradigm over-turned.

And yet as Malaby pointed out in his book, there was a contradiction in this seemingly empowering vision: because even though access to the tools was the liberating notion, there were some people with MORE access to tools, to software, than others. Even within the Lab, the coders held precedence over, say, someone in customer service or accounting.

Removing the friction between the ‘platform’ and the end user doesn’t mean the friction is removed entirely, because strategic or tactical choices are always being made, and in this case those choices resided with the makers of the tools themselves, just as Adobe makes decisions about whether to upgrade its software to the Apple OSX operating system, or Linden Lab makes the decision about whether to allow flexis, or whether to deploy Havok 4 (and how to do so), or how to handle mega prims.

So while there is, on the surface, a certain appeal to the idea of “let people create and then get out of their way” even open source software is bound by decisions that get made – what enhancements to invest in, the road map, and whether you have the skill set or access in order to change it yourself.

You can never entirely get out of the way of the person using the tools – even a pencil needs a sharpener. And yet, it certainly SEEMS as if Linden Lab shifted from a faith that providing great tools would de facto lead to a growing world, to an increased focus on controlling the experience of the user, which Ari equates to Apple.

(I’ll leave aside that I don’t think the choice is binary for now – the Lab clearly believes that it is on a path to create more tools for creation, such as mesh, and that this argument of a shift away from tools is, well, specious).

The Culture of Second Life
Nowhere is this shift at Linden Lab more evident than in Tom Hale calling the idea of a Second Life culture specious.

My argument has NEVER been that there aren’t many cultures or many different communities. My argument has always been that the governance, tools and affordances of Second Life contribute to a wide set of cultural norms and symbols.

The “old” culture of Second Life placed precedence on tools. This emphasis led to concepts of governance and platform development that created shared values and symbols, even as individual cultures and communities thrived.

Just as I can be Indonesian (as Tom Boellstorff would point out) and share cultural symbols with other Indonesians, I can also be gay and share or appropriate cultural symbols from the broader gay community and make them my own.

Culture becomes a short-hand for how we perceive our participation in place and community. Without thinking about culture, we think of an interface as merely an interface (or interference) and not an affordance for shared symbology.

Culture is a lens, and whether we believe one exists or not, it’s a useful lens for thinking about things like interface design. But so are economics, sociology and politics. I mean, I wonder if anyone at the Lab has ever read Richard Bartle.

Regardless, I believe that thinking of Second Life as a culture, just like thinking about the “Facebook culture” is useful, because the role of anthropology is to give us a lens to understand communities of people and to extrapolate that understanding to the broader human condition.

Is Linden Lab More Like Apple?
Ari concludes that the shifts at Linden Lab are equivalent to Second Life becoming more like Apple and less like Adobe:

Linden Lab wants (needs) more main-stream end consumers in order to grow and remain relevant, not just to be a geeky playground. They must convert their current Adobe paradigm into the Apple paradigm and appeal directly to the end consumer: the average grid-surfer. This means simplifying the viewer to appeal to those average people who don’t want complicated things. (I have been an I.T. professional since 1987 – and I love the iPad for it’s basic simplicity. I just don’t have to even think about anything in order to use it.)

This means they must create a compelling product – like Apple does – that will draw the masses at large. Simplify and beautify. It’s really that simple. The developers must come secondarily. And they will come. They will flock to the grid to cater to those end consumers. It is a simple mechanical shift in how the economy works.

The idea is to influence choice.

And this strategic shift makes sense, in a way, although I hardly think it’s binary.

But saying that Linden Lab is now like Apple reminds me of this:

I grew up with Apple. I own an Apple laptop. (I also own a PC). I own an iPhone. We’re an iPad Developer.

And Second Life: you’re no Apple.

Which was really the point of my last post about design thinking. Because I hold Apple up as an example of true design thinking: the ability to imagine ecosystems and products in ways which could not have been predicated simply through analysis of past data. Design thinking is the process of inventing new future paradigms that, although you might not be able to PROVE they would become successful, held an intuitive logic and elegance that arises not because you parse the past, but because you parse the past PLUS imagine a completely new way of solving a problem.

Unexpected Futures
I can PROVE that people stay in Second Life if they buy something. I can extrapolate from this data to design a solution that makes shopping easier. I have arrived at a design solution extrapolated from past data, and I can then move on to the challenges of interface design and execution based on this design strategy.

Design thinking would take stock of the past but would also move us towards an unexpected future. Instead of cobbling together communities, and social media, and shopping, and land purchase, it would imagine new ecosystems for imagination, and it would extrapolate ways in which social media (by which I mean the media definition that usually encompasses Twitter and Facebook and all that) or content creation DON’T satisfy users, and would create new industry-changing paradigms that take us off of our current trajectory.

That’s what Apple does.

And while I applaud the notion that an intense focus on the user experience is THE best way to create value, there are dozens of strategic choices within this decision set that you need to get right. You can decide, for example, between investing in robust engineering (like, say, Google) and investing in interface/ecosystem (Apple) although again, the choice is not binary.

But I haven’t yet seen evidence that the strategic choices are based on anything approaching the “Apple Way” in which the design of the system incorporates an understanding of past data and patterns with a broadly strategic re-imagining of the future beyond tactical execution.

Apple succeeds not because it’s a great software or hardware maker, but because it brings to bear all of the tools of interface, hardware, partnerships, closed versus open APIs and systems, economics and monetization, and engineering to the task of creating compelling user experiences that change the game for EVERYONE.

In that way, Linden Lab has become MORE like Adobe than ever before, and less like Apple:

- Like Adobe, the Lab needs users in order to sell its software (and servers). Just as Flash spent years working toward ubiquity in the browser, the Lab is now trying to bump up the number of users in order to facilitate the selling of more SOFTWARE.

- Like Adobe, the Lab is now organized as a software company, a point made by Tom when he appeared on Metanomics (read the transcript).

“I think interestingly enough today’s announcements are as much about Linden Lab as they are about Second Life.”

“So in some sense, and I don’t know if this is going too far, but I think this kind of announcement represents us a little bit taking Linden Lab out of Beta. We’ve really evolved our process for developing software, our approach to doing it. We’ve evolved the tools and techniques that we use, and I think we feel like this is a big leap forward for Linden Lab and not just for Second Life. ”

- This reorganization isn’t towards community management or a focus on user experiences, but rather upon releasing software. The shift to quarterly “releases” is evidence of a shift towards predictability and management, towards features and improvements.

There’s isn’t inherently wrong with any of this. But we’re still a long way off from Linden Lab and Second Life becoming anything like Adobe OR Apple.

Steve Jobs proved that you can have a second act. That you can change the game not once but many times.

Maybe once, Rosedale seemed like he might be the next Steve Jobs. And maybe once we saw Second Life as the same kind of game-changer as the iPhone. But we still wait to see if there’s a true second act for Second Life, or whether we’re beholden now to a culture of release dates.


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