Why Second Life needs OpenSim

As the number of virtual worlds proliferates, Second Life is beset on all sides — niche worlds, big social worlds, high-end worlds, inexpensive worlds, browser-based worlds, kid worlds, business worlds and many more.

Today, Second Life has the clear first-mover advantage when it comes to mixed-use social worlds, but consumer tastes change quickly. Just as Facebook has eclipsed MySpace, so some newer, flashier, richer world might come to eclipse Second Life.

What sets Second Life apart from all these potential competitors is that Second Life is only virtual world which is a part of a larger ecosystem, a hypergrid where goods and services can be shared between different worlds.

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Let’s say you’re a school or a museum that can’t afford $55,000 to put up a private grid with Second Life Enterprise or $295 a month per region plus a $1,000 setup fee to be on the public Second Life grid. You can spend just $25 a month per region on ReactionGrid — or nothing at all, and host OpenSim on your own computers.

The OpenSim build can be visited with the same browser used to access Second Life — and the content that’s created on the OpenSim platform can be uploaded to Second Life.

That’s like being able to host your website with Windows Server or with the open source Apache server. For a business or school, the more options the better.

And users benefit — some of the finest content creators out there are frequently strapped for cash. A low cost platform can help artists, musicians, non-profit organizations, and small companies produce sites for the public to visit.

By being part of a broader ecosystem, Second Life can continue to remain relevant even as the world moves to the 3D Internet.

Without that ecosystem, Second Life might follow the path of America Online. AOL resisted the Internet at first, keeping up high walls to keep its users from venturing into the wilds of the World Wide Web. But now it’s just another Web portal. Its proprietary server platform ditched in favor of Web standards. And the high prices it was able to charge for “AOL Keywords” and access are now in line with prices elsewhere on the Internet. It’s become irrelevant, but at least is survived, unlike Compuserve and other, smaller competitors.

This is what will happen if OpenSim diverges away from the Second Life standard — or another virtual worlds platform comes along that’s better and easier than OpenSim and not compatible with Second Life.

Second Life needs to ensure that it stays in lockstep with OpenSim. Not by open sourcing its server software, but in joining with the OpenSim developers to create an official standard setting body for the Second Life/OpenSim ecosystem, by creating a new, ecosystem-wide digital rights management infrastructure, and, finally, by allowing goods and users to move freely between the two platforms.

Standards Body

Today, LibOpenMetaverse is the defacto standard of the Second Life/OpenSim ecosystem. This allows Second Life to benefit from content development, and browser development in the OpenSim community — and vice versa. Today, OpenSim supports almost all of the functions of LibOpenMetaverse — this summer, after two years in development, OpenSim reached 97% compatibility with Second Life functionality. The remaining issues mostly had to do with vehicle physics — and most of these have been resolved this fall.

Once OpenSim completely catches up with Second Life, what will happen next? Open source developers are a wild, creative bunch. Without the goal of compatibility hanging over them, they might well decide to go and invent something new — as the folks at the realXtend offshoot have already done, with their support for meshes.

A typical Second Life user who tries to visit a realXtend world won’t be able to see much of the content there.

Next year, Second Life plans to roll out support for mesh objects as well. It’s important to have a standards body in place to ensure that the platforms converge rather than diverge, to avoid forcing users to choose one platform over another.

A standards body might even come up with a decent way to show hypergrid teleport addresses — the current system, where every region has a different IP address, leaves much to be desired. What about something like: grid.com/regionname? Just a thought.

Digital Rights Management

Neither Apache nor Windows Server are in the digital rights management business. At least, not when it comes to ensuring the copyrights of producers of HTML. If I put up code on my Website, any visitor can look at the source code and copy it on their own site. During the early days of the Internet, this allowed Webmasters to learn how to make Websites by examining the HTML behind their favorite sites.

Innovative elements spread quickly — table layouts, drop-down menus, and frames.

In fact, early browsers encouraged this kind of copying by putting a “view source” option in the main menus. And this option is, in fact, still there in today’s browsers. (It’s “Page Source” in the View menu of Firefox.)

Website owners looking to protect their content do so the old-fashioned way — by putting a copyright notice on the screen and chasing down infringers. They’re helped by the fact that they can use search engines to dig up illegally copied material. But it takes work. Infringing sites have to be informed of the copyright violations and if the content isn’t taken down, copyright holders need to contact the hosting companies. If that fails, they have to call in the lawyers. It’s costly, but its the price of doing business. For trademark holders, it’s even more important to be vigilant — trademarks that don’t get defended are lost. This is why Rollerblades doesn’t make “rollerblades” — they make “in-line skates.” As they keep telling everybody.

Every content distribution system is liable for infringing content, and has to make good-faith efforts to take it down. This is why OSGrid and most other OpenSim-based grids have copyright and trademark protection policies in place — or are in the process of writing some. These policies usually include the immediate removal of infringing content from their databases and, if there are ongoing occurrences, the outright banning of violators from the platform.

There have been many attempts to create digital copyright management systems. But as almost any teenager’s hard drive will demonstrate, these systems do not work. Digital content needs to be consumed — and as it is being consumed by our ears, or our eyeballs, then it can be copied.

This is nothing new. Humans have been copying content since content was invented. It would be foolish to assume that virtual worlds will be able to achieve what no one else has.

However, by working together with OpenSim core developers — say, in the form of a standards committee — Second Life and OpenSim might come up with ways to make it easier to track content across grids, to create uniform permission standards, and to assign and transfer ownership of objects, scripts, terrains, and even entire regions.

Yes, individual OpenSim grid operators can still bypass built-in controls — these are the joys of having an open source platform. So, for example, those Chinese sites that show pirated movies and TV shows and distribute illegal MP3s and ebooks can expand their offerings to include prim hair and sex beds. Hopefully, before that happens, the Chinese government will figure out a way to improve copyright enforcement in the country. Though, if it does, I’m sure other countries will step up. Afghanistan, anyone? Just try filing a copyright violation suit there. Or maybe North Korea… But these sites are also notorious for viruses and trojans — free content comes with a substantial risk to the user.

A unified, cross-platform approach to rights management will make it easier for legitimate grids to track and enforce copyrights and trademarks.

Freedom of Movement

With cross-platform digital rights management in place, Linden Lab will finally be able to allow movement of avatars and assets between grids running Second Life or Second Life Enterprise and grids running OpenSim.

Once that happens then yes, Second Life will have to lower land prices and improve service.

This will only improve the end user experience, however, and help ensure that the Second Life/OpenSim ecosystem survives and dominates the coming 3D Web.

And more companies will be willing to fork over $55,000 for a server license if their users can participate in a broader virtual world ecosystem as a result, with access to the broadest possible content and largest possible pool of potential visitors.

Having a larger ecosystem will help marginalize other, non-compatible proprietary alternatives, as well — giving Second Life some protection against well-funded, technically-advanced competitors.

After all, the World Wide Web, when it first came out, was a pretty ugly place compared to some of the proprietary systems in use at the time. But Web standards won out. Yes, sure, standards-based development is slow. It’s hard to get volunteer developers all on the same page, and it’s not always the best technology that wins out in the end.

But a large ecosystem, with products available at a variety of price points for all possible use cases, is the only one that will endure for the long term.

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maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

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  • Yurii Rashkovskii

    "copyrights that don’t get defended are lost." are you sure you are not confusing copyrights and trademarks? you can't lose a copyright, because what you have created always remains created by you.

  • maybe what you are really saying here is why SL should go opensource with the server-side? Can SL really go big as a closed, proprietary system? Cost is one thing and the SL enterprise offering looks pricey, especially for schools, but there is also the risk of locking into SL and being dependent on their development plans to progress. Opensource doesn't have to be free of course.

  • Yurii —

    You are absolutely right — I meant "trademarks" there. I'll update the posts. Copyright normally lasts for a set amount of years beyond the death of the creator (varies by country). Trademarks are granted by individual governments and have to be actively protected to keep from being lost. With branded goods its is the brand identity — the trademark — that is most important.

    Copyright applies to things like text, photographs, music, and art, and doesn't require any registration. You make something, you automatically own the copyright until you formally assign the copyright to someone else. A trademark holder can sell licenses to other to use their trademarks. A copyright holder sells reprint rights to their work.

    — Maria

  • This whole article reads like an ad for OpenSim.

    I wonder how Adam Frisby, the main guy behind the OpenSim efforts, came to be listed as the second person on the "About Us" page for this blog.

  • Troy —

    This whole publication is a giant ad for OpenSim! No, seriously, we definite "hypergrid" to be the total space of worlds accessible through the Second Life and OpenSim browsers that could (potentially) be connected to one another via hypergrid teleporation links. We believe that this is the future of virtual worlds, and write extensively about the various companies and groups offering OpenSim deployments — Adam Frisby runs one such company, and there's ReactionGrid and OSGrid, and dozens of others.

    Adam Frisby is listed under "About" because he has contributed an opinion column to this blog (found in the "Columns" section).

    You can see his contributions here: http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/author/adam-fris

    We are always looking for columnists with an interesting — and informative — point of view about the use of virtual worlds technologies for business.

    — Maria Korolov

    Editor, Hypergrid Business

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  • Interesting analysis, Maria. I think that the guys at Linden Lab have always recognzied the need to create a wider ecosystem – hence the open-sourcing of the viewer and the early experiments with the Open Grid Protocol.

    Things have bogged down lately – work on the Linden Lab inspired VWRAP (the next attempt at laying down standards) is slow. Though the VWRAP group is open to anyone, my suspicion is that if they're really looking to engage OpenSim, they're going to have to bring some of the ideas to on our mailing lists as well as on the VWRAP ones. This isn't from a position of any snobbishness – it's just that I think it's difficult for the core developers of OpenSim to track what's going on in so many different places.

    One thing that would really help, in my opinion, is if Linden Lab published documentation for the client – region simulator protocol. Admittedly, much of this has been clean room reverse-engineered by libopenmetaverse but some explicit documentation by Linden Lab would make certain things much clearer. And this would need to continue for future changes – at OpenSim we're still in the position where unannounced changes in the behaviour of the Linden Lab viewer can stop it working with OpenSim until people make their usual heroic effort to fix it.

  • I loved this balanced treatment of a very complex issue. Make no mistake – this is an important new frontier – but there are parallels with what has gone before in other media. I appreciate your discussion of DRM:

    "Digital content needs to be consumed — and as it is being consumed by our ears, or our eyeballs, then it can be copied. This is nothing new. Humans have been copying content since content was invented. It would be foolish to assume that virtual worlds will be able to achieve what no one else has."

    Your understanding of the economics of virtual worlds is probably going to be borne out in practice – Second Life will have to lower land prices and improve service once standards are in place to to allow movement of avatars and assets between grids.

    My personal take is that SL will not do what it takes to open its grid up in time to remain a force in the 3D Internet. I do think that, like AOL, SL's attempts to keep a closed system will eventually fail as competitors line up outside its walls. What a shame, as I find it to be a high-quality platform with many interesting people.

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  • Second Life's integration with OpenSim is nice and all, but it is rather putting the cart before the horse.

    The AOL comparison is apt, but not for the reason you outline. AOL's problem wasn't centered on a kind of "tear down that paywall Mr. Case" issue so much as it was just a lousy product that drove the prime user demographics away. The software was buggier than a Florida swamp, it was full of 13 year olds griefing chat rooms with reams of racist and mean spirited nonsense that AOL did very little about, and their customer service was unresponsive (in fact, trying to cancel their service was often as difficult as trying to to leave the Mafia) or just plain dumb. SL users will find all this very familiar.

    So what Second Life must do to succeed is to first deal with immediate defects such as increasing lag, hardware requirements that are more and more outstripping what most computer users have, stop annoying content creators and come up with a viable way to protect their copyrights and be honest and open with its users rather than just resorting to the corporate default of inane and intellectually dishonest p.r. speak and do a better job of policing griefers. If they don't do that, their song and dance with OpenSim and anyone else will be like the Titanic trying to prevent sinking by polishing the brass rails in a quixotic attempt that would believe that looking shiny will prevent the inevitable demise.

    Second life has been around long enough now that it should be getting at least a million users a day. That it struggles mightily to attain 70,000 at anyone time is a huge red flag flapping vigorously in the wind that Mark Kingdon and crew apparently can't hear or see. And that is a pity.

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  • nice posts as always Maria – you are a gifted writer =)

    a few comments (out of order) – i don't think sl needs to lower their fees and i look at network solutions, the ICANN peeps, as an example. i have used them since 1999 and they have always been $35 per year. back then, they were about the only game in town and you had to use them

    but then Go Daddy got big (started in 1997) and is now bigger than netsol and charges way less. netsol still gets $35 and is still important. so that's one way sl could be

    now you know we have 12 sims isl and 4 sims on our own grid with Reaction Grid and the price diff is HUGE as you pointed out (about 7% the cost actually) and we LOVE reaction grid. omg, they are so wonderful and soooo helpful (they actually care and i truly believe that LL does not care at all about me – waaaah) =p

    i think sl will be the big player for casual people in the long run because it is so easy. there is a def cold-water-in-the-face moment with OpenSim. for me anyway, i was overwhelmed at the lack of stuff i had. i do lots of building with subQuark, even multi-sim campus development, but i freaked out that i would have to start all over again with textures and the like (i am mixed on using second inventory and have used meerkat to grab some of my bigger builds)

    BUT that very same "oh crap" moment is also a blessing that you alluded to. since i can't just pop over to Corn Furniture and buy an office chair for 50 cents, i end up making it. and that has proved very rewarding

    and, one last "but", when e-commerce gets introduced into opensim, well, that will be a game changer – then LL will need to really worry

    thanks for letting me blab all over the place =)