90-Degree Course Adjustment

The news came yesterday after lunch: major layoffs at Linden Lab, as much as 30% of their employees. Lindens who had been there from early on, respected engineers, all laid off. All of those who had, at some point, been involved in the idea of virtual world interoperability — gone. Then the new vision: Second Life on a browser, accessible to the masses via well-known social networks. Wow. This is what I call a 90-degree course adjustment.

Clearly, I know nothing about the internal situation at Linden Lab. Probably their VC money has dried off, maybe their revenue is not enough to pay so many people. Who knows what’s behind a 30% ‘rightsizing’… But the new vision is an indication that this is not just about balancing the budget sheet; it’s about redefining what Second Life is. LL’s CEO wants it to be more like FarmVille than like World of Warcraft. Too many people have commented on his vision, I’m not going to do it. He’s the head of the company, he should try to make his vision come to life.

What I want to talk about here is what this 90-degree course adjustment entails for OpenSim. I confess yesterday I had that familiar feeling of having reached the point of having to stand and lead. Not me, personally. But the OpenSim project, as a whole. The torch is on us. Let me explain.

In spite of being inherently a rebellious project, OpenSim has always existed in the shadow of Second Life. The rebellious nature was, indeed, just a confirmation of that dependency; the kind of relationship teenagers have with parents. A lot of people in the OpenSim community have been assuming that, sooner or later, the large Second Life virtual world would be trading avatars and money with OpenSim-based grids. The Open Grid Protocol (OGP) prototype, first unveiled in the summer of 2008, was a teaser; a promise of what could come next. Many OpenSim core developers have been deeply involved in efforts for virtual world interoperability, first in the Architecture Working Group, and, recently, in the VWRAP working group at the IEFT. Both of these working groups were led by Linden Lab engineers… who have been laid off.

In the wake of these layoffs, the idea that Second Life will be part of a larger web of virtual worlds is today more remote than ever. There’s no one left in Linden Lab to carry the interoperability torch, at least not of the kind we were thinking. It looks more likely that Second Life will be part of the Web itself, complete with the Web’s inability to deal with portable identity, and therefore eager to serve the largest pool of users on the Web, the 400 or so million Facebook users.

It’s always hard when the driver we were relying on suddenly makes a left turn from where we thought we were going. The question for OpenSim now is this: do we really want to follow Linden Lab on that left turn? Or do we take the torch and lead?

Personally, the last thing I want to do is to be involved in one more Facebook app. That’s the kind of interoperability project that I give my undergrad students on a 3-week time period. Not only it’s technically uninspired, but it’s missing the core of what I believe interoperable virtual worlds can bring to the Web itself: true, S2S portable identity. Not just “this is me” a-la OpenID, but “this is me, and I have a lot of baggage that I want to access while I’m visiting your site.” The vision of interoperable virtual environments is as exciting to me now as it was 3 years ago.

As usual, I don’t speak for the entire OpenSim project. And it’s probably too early to internalize what this course adjustment really means for OpenSim. But one thing is for sure: if there is going to be a web of virtual worlds, a decentralized S2S system of 3D environments that can seamlessly exchange user agents securely, that web will be made of OpenSim servers entirely, for the foreseeable future. Second Life is out of the picture.

10 replies on “90-Degree Course Adjustment”

  1. Nink says:

    The offer is still open so if Linden labs wants to switch to Opensim in order to reduce cost of developing and managing a separate code base they are welcome to dive in. The waters fine and the requirement for interoperability from SL to Opensim would not be such a MMOX err OGP umm VWRAP problem after all.

    See ya on the HyperGrid


  2. Cisop Sixpence says:

    This may put pressure on the OpenSim project to get up to speed. If Second Life decides to make a ill fated course correction that the users aren’t in agreement with, then OpenSim is the most likely place they would jump ship to. Maybe a Distributed OpenSim, linkable to others on the grid? You have a spare computer, maybe you to could be part of the grid? Just a thought… who knows. What is certain, is that Linden Labs needs to clearly communicate what they envision for the future of Second Life, other wise users will be less likely to buy products from merchants, and then merchants won’t be able to pay their tier, and will leave, and if there is no content for users, an uncertain future will become certain… and perhaps final.

    This isn’t a nail in the coffin, just a cough that sounds concerning. Unfortunately it’s putting a bunch of customers on edge, and when they are on edge – plans for the future are put on hold. I think it’s time for LL to assure us that this sudden jerk in the course wasn’t them falling asleep at the wheel. Ideally if Second Life customers want to control the course that we are on, it’s time to be an investor in Second Life. Talk is cheap, but your L$ speak louder than words. Let’s hope they are listening.

  3. Diva, thanks for your good analysis of the changed situation from the OpenSim perspective. I also think that this change of SL strategy is an opportunity for all of us. But this change also means more responsibility! More people depend more on us than before. They wish that we make OpenSim a good, feature rich product at a professional quality level and that as early as possible.

    In the past SL did try to win new corporate customers with their behind the firewall server product and marketing activities focused on that market segment, but they did not really succeed. Instead more and more businesses use OpenSim, that can be much better tailored to customer needs, as well as it can be better integrated into corporate IT processes and system. – And now SL did announce that they will focus on the consumer market and it becomes clear that they abandon their server product for corporations.

    What about former SL experts that were working on open interfaces and interoperability? Might they be interested in joining us as developers, testers and documentation experts? – I am sure others also share the same vision of an interconnected 3d Internet, the vision of a truly open metaverse. Now, OpenSim seems to be the only alternative left for people that want to achieve more than just a social community platform with some integration with Twitter and Facebook.

    The Internet will be 3D, but the 3D Internet will not be SL, that becomes clear with this strategic change of SL!

  4. Absolutely, 100% right on. Far too long has Opensim sat in the shadow of Second Life and played catchup. If it becomes clear that Second Life is indeed taking the direction that it looks like, it’s time for, as you put it, Opensim to take up the torch and lead us into future. If diverging is what that takes, then so be it.

    I’d also like to point out that I think you are also 100% right about the social networking thing. I like social networks for many reasons – but there’s a point where you don’t need to integrate them into EVERYTHING. I swear to god, I’m going to end up with shoes that have soles integrated into twitter at some point if this nonsense keeps up. I understand that they want to have a wider adoption, I really do, but… yikes.

  5. […] sets off warning sirens for me, as well it should for any other virtual world enthusiasts.  Diva Canto made an excellent post about it on her blog, espousing most of the same concerns that I have, although I make a few more […]

  6. […] just blogged about the Linden Labs layoffs, and what the recent change of course for Second Life could mean to […]

  7. Ener Hax says:

    free markets, consumer pressure, and, as you put it, those standing and leading will develop the “best fitting” virtual world solutions

    it worked for us – it was clear that LL was going down over a year ago when they took 4 months to answer an attribution question for my subQuark who had been approached by the big publishing “O” to author and then the subsequent policy and pricing changes (and we both actually met two business Lindens in person at Battery Street!)

    from 19 sims isl to 16 in Reaction Grid was the result and who knows where we will be in a year. some other hosting services have similar priced plans with more resources and more will sprout up for those lacking the tech savvy or time to implement something like your fantastic Diva Distribution =)

    alternatives are sprouting as the exodus continues (of both employees and residents)

    i am deeply appreciative of the work you do and of all the OpenSim developers

  8. Rob Knop says:

    I agree that OpenSim should stop following SL and should take the lead, and try to establish *the* protocols and reference implementation for the global interoperable metaverse.

    One thing that is holding OpenSim back is no independent client. If OpenSim decided to go GPL, that would free a lot of the problems, because they they could take the Linden code and make it their own… but I’m not going to argue that, as I know I will just die. So, given that, OpenSim *really really* needs to have one or more clients that are independently written, so that they are no longer tied to the Linden protocol, and so that they can update the protocol and document it to make it into something real. One thing that is a nightmare for Linden is the fact that it’s often impossible to connect to Second Life from behind a firewall. OpenSim should solve this problem — not just by allowing for standalone instances, for people want to travel– by fixing the protocol. But, that requires the client….

    Also, there’s way more to virtual worlds than the “rich portable identity” you describe. Yes, that’s something very important. But there’s also the immersive nature, which you don’t get with the web, that you don’t get with facebook apps. This immersive nature is key to the true power of virtual worlds.

    I used to think when I worked at Linden that anybody who thought they understood Second Life, couldn’t possibly understand Second Life. The diversity and potential of virtual worlds like this is huge, and part of the great thing about it is that different aspects of it speak to different people. Once you have a bunch of business types trying to figure out how to stick it into a buzzword compliant silo, you’re missing the point. Part of the point is recognizing the part you care about and its power, but also recognizing that there’s so much more to it that you need to be careful not to limit it and cut off the other things you haven’t even thought of that people will do with it. That would be as if instead of having the Internet and Web we have today, made by engineers interested in a peer-to-peer protocol and flexibility, we had the old version of AOL made by a company interested in locking in users and a revenue stream.

  9. The engine that makes SL run (financially) is small businesses (usually sole proprietors) who make money producing goods and services for SL residents. Educators, charities, government grants, and big companies are a drop in the bucket of the SL economy. For an open, federated Metaverse to become competitive, it must attract the small businesses who currently power the SL economy.

    Right now, OpenSim worlds are seen as the childlike bargain-basement cousins of SL. Current perceptions include:

    * OpenSim doesn’t works as well as SL (e.g. it can reliably handle fewer avatars per sim)
    * a much smaller population (smaller market) than SL
    * a sense that it’s full of con artists and general lawlessness

    Those perceptions must be addressed if OpenSim is ever going to be used to build a real, federated Metaverse. I’d love to see a Metaverse like the World Wide Web, but there was more to building the web than writing some software and protocols. Legal and trust frameworks are required too. Remember how long it took before people felt comfortable entering their credit card info on the web? Trust doesn’t happen overnight, and doesn’t come about by writing some more C# code.

    OpenSim needs a Cicero, not another hacker.

  10. […] Diva Canto (sviluppatrice di Opensim): qual è il futuro per Opensim, dopo questo cambio radicale di direzione per Second Life? Opensim può continuare a seguire Second Life o se ne deve distaccare definitivamente? – 90-Degree Course Adjustment […]

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