Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Linden Lab Lock Step, Out of Synch

Right. So, you need a story for the investors, media and assorted chattering classes about your ‘restructuring’. Telling them that your new viewer was a disaster, you search is broken, and your concurrency is flat or falling hardly makes good television (or blogs or radio or whatever).

Throwing in some buzzwords like “no download” and “social media” makes sense – the media follows the same memes around the Web in never-ending circles until someone throws them some new chum, which is why Time will running a cover story sometime soon on how we’ll be playing games with our toothbrushes (a la Jesse Schell) or how we’ll all be doing jumping jacks in our living room thanks to the new generation of controller-less games.

Your current customers are another story. And it will be interesting to see in the coming weeks whether Linden Lab has mended its ways with all this centralizing, restructuring, focus-on-what-matters-to-Residents stuff they say they’re doing:

Our restructuring plan has three main goals:

* to improve our focus as a company on the projects that matter most to Residents
* to simplify our organizational structure and operate more efficiently
* to achieve cost savings so that we can invest in platform improvements, new products, and new lines of business.

So, um, I’d really like to hear what the first and last bullets mean.

Now, no prompting people! No hints! Let’s hear what M has to say about “what matters most to Residents”. (Waits, tapping foot).

And as for all of those new products and improvements and lines of business – well, OK. Are you talking about something like Second Life Enterprise for example? Or Avaline? I mean, how’s that track record going so far?

A Backlog of Innovation
In all fairness, the “real stuff” hasn’t happened yet. Sure, we’re two years in to M’s tenure, but you didn’t think this would happen overnight did you? There was all that dark fiber work and viewer coding and putting something or other in the cloud.

The truth is, there’s a substantial backlog of innovation in the pipeline. Whether the team is “centralized” and “operating efficiently” enough now to actually launch it all is another question.

Remember Tom Hale’s presentation at SLCC last year? About mesh and all that? Well….it’s coming! (We think).

I guess it’s complicated. I guess that’s why it takes, um, 18 months or whatever.

By most accounts, the mesh test grid is a, well, a mess – a bunch of Google Sketch-Up imports, a bunch of people on the NDA-protected forum wringing their hands over the potential impact to the Second Life economy, and a lot of opinion on how mesh should actually work.

Now, if this isn’t mesh, it should be, or at least gives an idea of what will be possible:

I’ve written about this before: Second Life won’t suddenly turn upside down because of mesh, it will take forever for its impact to be fully felt, but it opens up a new ecosystem of content development that will give a massive boost to the Second Life economy and provide a familiar entry point for people who love fiddling around in 3Daz or Sketch-Up and who want somewhere to actually show off and walk around their 3D models.

(On a side note, join me for a discussion of 3D development on Metanomics this Wednesday at 12:00 SLT).

A new physics engine (already implemented as a foundational step, as I understand it) will open up new capabilities for Second Life. I mean….check out this video by one of my favorite people, Opensource Obscure (covered by Hamlet a few months back):

Shared Media
OK, I’m adding Second Life Shared Media to the innovation backlog list because – well, because who uses it? That would mean using Viewer 2.0.

Until SLSM is standard in all of the viewers being used to access Second Life, the level of innovation we’ll see from what it can do will barely be tapped.

Shadows and Lights
Second Life needs to run on the computers in my office. And the computers in my office range from machines that are 5 years old and are used primarily for Word and e-mail; and computers suitable for high end graphics work.

I have no idea why you need to tweak so many settings to get Second Life to, well, work – especially on low-end machines. Do they even TEST on those kinds of machines? Has anyone at Linden Lab gone out to Best Buy and picked up the kind of computer my mother might buy and then tried to get Second Life up and running in a few clicks? (Actually, not my mother, she’s actually a lot more demanding than she used to be and is now pining for a high-end Mac).

But aside from being able to run SL easily on a low-end machine, the OPTIONAL ability to toggle light and shadows on, in conjunction with mesh and Havok, will go a long way to bring Second Life up-to-date with our common experiences of 3D environments.

I mean, I have to say – I’m not so sure I’d stay in Second Life today if I was logging in for the first time. 3 years ago it was pretty impressive, but with increasingly rich 3D content available across a wide variety of platforms and plug-ins, SL is looking, shall we say, dated.

This is more what I’d expect from a 3D immersive space:

Strategic Innovation
Now, for the sake of avoiding another “long, humid post” (as Prokofy put it), I’ll avoid lengthy repetition (for today) of the same things I’ve been saying for, um, 2 years or so.

Second Life has significant strategic opportunities but to take advantage of them, Linden Lab would need to articulate a stronger value proposition, demonstrate world-class design thinking, and create a new architecture for how it innovates and works with its community.

Beyond that, it has strategic opportunities that I fear it will miss because the Lab is overly focused on extrapolating from past data (rather than intuiting new/visionary solutions based only in part on past data); and on nailing jello to the wall: namely, trying to capture attention in the social media ocean on ITS terms rather than the Lab’s own.

If it was smart, the Lab would at least take a deep look at:

- Identity systems: the Lab seems to have bought into the conventional wisdom that we’re becoming more transparent, that privacy is dead or dying, and that we’re all comfortable and happy being connected and ‘visible’ online. By starting with this premise, the Lab will make a strategic blunder in ignoring the larger possibilities of identity systems.

- Search: another case where the Lab has acceded to conventional wisdom. By buying the Google “everything is an algorithm” approach to search, they’ve actually denied themselves the possibility of creating a ‘curated’ form of search that includes recommendations, user input, and something as banal seeming as traffic.

- Micro-transactions: until recently, Second Life was one of the only platforms in the world where the micro-transaction model was working, was sustainable, and was the source of incredibly deep value and a wide economy. Converting this value into a wider set of services and features has so far eluded the Lab.

So Why Are We Here?
But with all this strategic value, with this innovation pipeline, why is the Lab where it is today?

In my last post, I responded to a comment by Metacam Oh as follows (abridged version):

It seems to me like they had sort of parallel road maps. And they got it wrong. The idea seemed to be this:

- Work on shopping. Shopping and the virtual goods economy was the one consistent thing SL could brag to the press about. Thus the purchase of onRez and XStreet and all that (and the massive error of trying to eliminate free items).

- Do some stuff with voice. The billions of hours of voice was the other thing they could brag about. Except – well, none of what they did actually worked.

- Launch a new first hour experience and a new viewer….because the new viewer was supposed to be the start of a whole new ‘feature set’ – those irritating side panels were supposed to link to Avatars United and the Marketplace and a new and improved search and groups and who knows what else.

See, I think they actually have a backlog of innovation but the whole thing got STUCK because Viewer 2.0 was a disaster.

And don’t sugar coat it. Viewer 2.0 was the biggest error they’ve ever made. Not because it’s sooooo horribly bad as a UI, but because it’s bad enough that they can’t launch all the other stuff that was supposed to be in the pipeline BECAUSE of it.

Groups, for example, I strongly suspect, were supposed to be overhauled through some sort of connection to the Avatars United system….the groups and social networks you set up in AU were supposed to become features you could scroll and read and interact with through Viewer 2.0.

But Viewer 2.0 was a flop, because most people won’t use it, it launched with broken search, and it changed your outfits on you! And seriously, that’s a major horror!

And because most people won’t use it, the innovation which is Shared Media has no legs right now.

So…while I’d accuse them of NOT making the changes we’ve asked for, I think they planned to try to improve a lot of those things, but their sequencing was backwards, and they’re now facing this plugged up bottleneck caused by 2.0.

The Lab, in other words, mixed up the order of things.

Out of Step, Out of Time
Now, aside from the larger challenge that Viewer 2.0 was needed FIRST and that all this other stuff was supposed to roll-out after, other things are out of synch.

Let’s pretend, for example, that you’re Apple. And you’re launching an iPad. How does this sound:

- Develop it
- A week before you launch it, show it to a bunch of key stakeholders and developers
- Launch it
- Wait for the stakeholders and developers to quickly build apps and content
- As those apps and content are in development, launch a marketplace

Um. No. What you’d do instead is you’d make sure the market was ready FOR launch, you’d make sure you had a robust network of applications and developers who were signed-up, on board and excited. And THEN you’d launch it.

Think about it: why would you launch something like Second Life Enterprise without giving the people who have potential clients for it some lead time to develop some apps? Why would you show it to them AFTER the fact? Why would you make a lot of noise about how you’ll have this “iPhone-type” marketplace and then not even launch one? And then, why would you abandon it before your ’sales channels’ have even had time to put a marketing piece together? (Because goodness knows, you didn’t really provide any channel support yourself?)

Now, I think they’re getting moderately better at this. But mesh strikes me as another example: if the Lab isn’t deeply involving content creators who will really be able to make it sing, then they’re doing something wrong. Inviting people to help alpha test it and break it is NOT the same as building the ecosystem of value that will sustain it.

The Lab does things out of sequence. And I have no idea why they do that, whether it’s a legacy issue or a systems issue or a lack of talent – but they don’t seem to follow what I’d consider fairly normal best practices for launching products or services.

This approach is also evident in the GSP/Solution Provider program which, I believe, has been hung out to dry. I’m of the opinion that the Lab no longer considers these ‘channels’ to be productive investments of energy.

Now, my company is a GSP and that’s great. But I still have the same question as when I signed up: “um, exactly what will I get out of this again?”

The GSP/SP program is a classified listings service for the most part, although it was trending in a better direction when Glen was still around.

I’d far prefer some kind of blinded bidding system – if some company out there wants to hire a Second Life developer, put up an RFP with specs and a budget and let companies submit their proposals. Linden Lab could facilitate this sort of exchange and let the market otherwise self-regulate.

Otherwise, kill it, or stop calling it something that it isn’t. It’s a vetted classified listing and everything else about it is based on word-of-mouth or FIC-ish referrals.

The Moving Metaverse
As I said in my last post, the Metaverse is moving. And that’s fine with me. We’re finding that the deeper value for customers (and by extension the consumers they serve) is at the intersections of technologies: immersive media combined with live events; mobile media combined with virtual environments; games combined with synchronous learning.

While the above is a picture of where we’re at today, it doesn’t address the larger trends that will play out over years rather than months. But in the meantime, it’s in the coming months that we’ll decide where we want to call home, or at least where we want to stop for a bit while we decide where to go next.


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