Today, Linden Lab is three companies in one.
First of all — and this is where most their revenues come from — it is a community company and content distribution channel. They charge people for access to this community through land rentals, advertising fees, commissions on currency exchange transactions and, of course, currency sales. In this, Linden Lab is most similar to Facebook or AOL. Like AOL, Second Life offers instant messaging, groups, social activities. Instead of an “AOL keyword” or prime placement on content pages, content providers and retailers rent land or buy advertising listings.
Second, Linden Lab is a software company, selling virtual world servers. In this, they are similar to Microsoft, with their Windows Server software.
Third, they make a browser for virtual worlds — like, say, Netscape or Internet Explorer.
Back in the early days of the Internet AOL was also three companies in one. In addition to their online community, they maintained their own proprietary back-end software, and distributed a proprietary viewer for their users.
But, on the back end, the proprietary platform is gone. AOL.com now uses the same HTML as all the other Web pages out there and can be accessed by any Internet browser.
By switching to OpenSim, Linden Lab will no longer need to invest in building virtual world software and instead focus on its core strength: community building. The money currently spent on development can be used for marketing, support, and improving the user experience.
The OpenSim platform is already technically ahead of the Second Life server. OpenSim is modular and scalable, supports mesh objects (with the modrex module). Additional modules can be plugged in to handle local currencies, integration with Web sites, back-end databases, and many other tasks.
There will be some substantial switching costs, as special modules will need to be rewritten to work with the Second Life environment. But, after that, Second Life will no longer need to worry about maintaining the platform — just in having the modules that keep it ahead of the competition.
By doing so, it will, in effect, be getting all the benefits of having IBM, Intel, and an army of volunteers working on their platform, and will automatically ensure compatibility with the rest of the 3D universe.
Instead, Linden Lab is now in a position of having to race to keep up with OpenSim. Full-region backups, real names, mesh objects, hypergrid teleports, server-side modules, megaregions and megaobjects are all currently available in OpenSim but not in Second Life. In addition, OpenSim grid managers can swap out physics engine — say, if they want their world to be in the zero gravity of outer space, or in the low gravity of the moon.
Keeping up with OpenSim will use up resources that could be better spent creating a better user experience, marketing, or community building.
Open source software is rarely used “as is” by enterprise clients. Businesses need to be sure that the software is stable, customized to fit their needs, and that there are support options available if something goes wrong.
The low-cost, self-serve alternatives are generally used by tech-savvy companies, resellers, and by non-profits with more smart people than money — like schools and colleges.
Linden Lab could find a niche for itself reselling customized, high-end, business-friendly versions of the OpenSim platform to enterprise users.
IBM, for example, charges $50,000 for its OpenSim-based Lotus Sametime 3D product — about as much as Linden Lab charges for Second Life Enterprise. And the IBM product offers more functionality and better enterprise integration. IBM can afford to pack a lot of goodies into the software since it doesn’t have to pay for core development. (Though IBM, in fact, does contribute quite a bit back to OpenSim.)
Microsoft was able to gain traction for its Web applications — Windows Server, Internet Explorer browser, and the MSN.com community site — by leveraging its existing distribution channels. The Internet Explorer browser, for example, comes pre-installed on all Windows machines, with MSN.com bookmarked and ready to load. Similarly, a company running Windows throughout the enterprise, and familiar with the Microsoft platform and management tools, may prefer to use Microsoft’s Windows server.
However, Linden Lab doesn’t currently have a distribution channel to leverage, unless it is acquired by Microsoft or Google, or strikes a deal with a major partner to embed their server software into their platform — as Microsoft initially launched MS DOS by signing IBM as a client.
Without bundling, there is no clear advantage to having their own platform.
Can Linden Lab be acquired by Microsoft so that Microsoft will have a hold on the new 3D Web?
OpenSim already runs on Windows, and is written in Microsoft’s C# language to run on Microsoft’s .Net framework. Microsoft is better off releasing their own distribution of OpenSim — say, with a graphical management console to replace the text-based one that currently comes with OpenSim. Microsoft could also offer integration tools that would let companies connect their virtual worlds with the corporate directories, instant messaging systems and social networks. OpenSim was built from the ground up to make this easy.
I would be surprised if a year or two down the line, Microsoft wasn’t offering a virtual world server alongside its Web server. The company already has a partnership with ReactionGrid and its own private world.
Bundling with Google’s new operating system is another alternative — unless Google decides to go the OpenSim route as well. Integrating OpenSim into their platform will be cheaper and quicker than integrating the Second Life server software.
Meanwhile, there are other proprietary virtual world platforms out there that use more modern technology than Second Life does and offer better graphics and physics engines.
If I was starting from scratch building a virtual world, and I decided that I wanted the same level of graphics quality as Second Life, I would opt for the OpenSim environment over Second Life, due to easier customization and significantly lower costs.
There’s an exercise that some business executives do, where they ask themselves: “If I weren’t in this business today, would I enter it?”
There’s no benefit in sending additional money into a project simply out of intertia. But switching platforms is a difficult and costly process. I’m not recommending that the Lindens unilaterally make the jump tomorrow.
One way to make the transition smoother would be to start new grids using alternative platforms.
Educational institutions, for example, require mixed-age environments, a PG-friendly world, real names for avatars, and the ability to make backups of their builds.
A new grid specifically designed for educational institutions could help address all these concerns. By using OpenSim as the back-end server platform, Second Life would be able to offer regions at a lower price point, making them more attractive to schools and colleges, while leveraging the Linden Lab brand recognition. In addition, the Lindens can make the move easy for current customers. This would enable them to compete against upstarts like ReactionGrid. In fact, they could create a separate grid for each new school district.
Similarly, the Lindens can create a new grid for business customers looking for a training and collaboration platform. Companies looking for a retail experience and access to Second Life’s population would still prefer to be on the main grid. But companies looking for privacy, security, real name avatars, and backups may want to have a more business-friendly environment. And, as with schools, a PG rating would enable them to do away with age restrictions, which could be useful for companies using student interns or who want to use the grid to hold focus groups with underage customers.
Switching to an OpenSim platform for these new grids would allow Linden Lab to serve new markets without alienating their current user base. It would also allow them to offer land at lower price points, and roll out features like mesh support as soon as they’re available in the OpenSim universe.