When will virtual land be free?

Today, Web space is free. Almost.

You can get free accounts for blogs on Blogger.com and WordPress.com — among many others. And storage space is so cheap that some Web hosts offer virtually unlimited storage. At Dreamhost, for example, you can add new sites to your hosting package for no additional cost other than the domain name registration.

For corporations, the cost of websites are a function of design, programming and bandwidth more than the number of pages.

When will the 3D Web get to this point? This is a useful question for enterprises since the availability of free space helped drive a massive explosion of content on the Internet, offering surfers plenty of things to see. The ability to create a free home page also created an army of evangelists out of average people who now had a platform from which to promote their groups, hobbies, politics, or anything else they wanted to talk about.

AD-BASED REVENUES

Today, a low-cost four-region mini grid costs $100 a month to run on Amazon’s cloud servers. That’s enough land for 60 people to have an acre each, with 4 acres left over for a central shopping district or landscaping. If users visit their land five times a month, and have five visits from friends a month, that’s 600 monthly visits. If advertisers are willing to fork over $10 per 1,000 impressions, we’re talking $6 in revenues here — a bit more if you collect commissions on stuff that these visitors buy from in-grid merchants, or if you have multiple advertisers sponsoring a single grid.

With your “bang for the buck” doubling every two years, the cost per mini-grid will drop to $6 by 2018. That’s a long time to wait for free land.

But this assumes that the underlying architecture of current virtual worlds doesn’t improve at all. Currently, for example, there are severe limitations on the number of avatars who can visit a particular location at the same time. If grid performance also doubles every two years, allowing for increased visitors, or higher population densities, or larger land areas with the same processing power, then this break-even point will be reached by 2015.

THE GEOCITIES MODEL

The first Internet website went up in 1991. GeoCities came out in 1995, offering free online space to anyone who wanted it — but didn’t start accepting advertising until 1997. By then, it was the fifth most popular site on the Internet.

A well-funded company could do something similar with virtual worlds, jump-starting the growth of the 3D Web by offering free virtual space — and monetizing its audience later.

There are a number of proprietary platforms that are already trying to do this. Some have failed — including Google’s Lively and Metaplace — but more are steadily springing up, though so far none have been based on open, hyperlinked standards-based platforms like OpenSim.

It took four years for GeoCities to come out after the first website was launched. Since the first hypergrid site went up in 2009, we should expect to see a 3D version of GeoCities up by around 2013.

THE NETSCAPE GOALPOST

One major factor influencing the growth of the Internet was Mosaic’s release of its user-friendly browser in 1993, followed by Netscape in 1994 and Internet Explorer in 1995.

Today, we’re still waiting for a decent browser for the 3D Web. The existing collection of Second Life-compatible browsers, as well as browsers for other virtual worlds, take a long time to download, are difficult to use, and are missing key navigation features. For example, no browser currently allows users to bookmark hypergrid destinations. In addition, existing browsers are cluttered with advanced features, building tools, search, inventory management, groups, profiles, virtual payments, instant messaging and a wealth of other functions.

This would be the equivalent of your Internet browser being a combination of Internet Explorer, Facebook, Gmail, AOL IM, PayPal, Amazon, and Yahoo. In fact, the AOL browser provided all this functionality in one place to AOL subscribers. (It still does.) The Nescape browser was hardly anything by comparison.

To this day, Internet browsers do very little. They show a webpage and track your bookmarks, and that’s pretty much it. Everything else happens on individual websites — on Facebook, on PayPal, on Twitter, on Amazon, and so on and so forth.

The emergence of a similar stripped down, single-function viewer for 3D worlds could signal an imminent explosion in the 3D Web.

Under this timeline, we’re going to see an early version of a usable 3D Web browser in 2011, a robust commercial offering in 2012, Google releasing a “bundled” version in 2013  — and facing an anti-trust case by 2016.

Set your calendars accordingly.

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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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  • Jaxxon

    Not sure what browser you're using, though. Every browser I see does everything from surf the web to build the web and more. I'm pretty sure I could get mine to make me a sandwich..

  • Serendipity Seraph

    Your price is a bit high for Amazon. If you reserve a small instance by the year then the cost is $50/mo. I have have found that adequate for a 4-region server in grid mode to osgrid under light to moderate use. Or was this the price for a medium instance (just under $100).

  • Free virtual environment space would be incredible but I think that the orders of magnitude higher costs per visitor for a virtual space will stop this happening for a very long time yet.

    I also have to disagree with your statement that “Internet browsers do very little”. There’s a vast amount of logic in there to interpret HTML and run all those hundreds of Javascript snippets.

    I actually think that a general 3D browser will have to have interfaces that are composed via a mark-up language rather than programatically hardbaked into the menus and dialogs that we see today. A virtual conferencing platform needs a vastly different user interface compared to a serious game. HTML composed shared media acting like a HUD on Second Life is a stop towards this, I think.

  • Justin —

    I agree that there’s a lot of stuff that Internet browsers do behind the scenes.

    But if you look at the features available to the typical user, they’re pretty simple. Under the file menu, you can save a web page. You can copy and paste and find things on the page using the edit menu. You can look at a history of the pages you’ve visited in the past. You can book mark pages to come back to them later.

    Compare that to the proprietary AOL browser, tightly integrated into the AOL environment — complete with messaging, email, shopping, discussions, news, search and much, much more.

    Today’s OpenSim and Second Life browsers are like that proprietary AOL browser. Currency is built in. Groups. Friends. IM. Search. I know that there are OpenSim users looking to re-create the Second Life experience who are frustrated that OpenSim doesn’t offer full implementation of all of Second Life’s features.

    Personally, I think that a browser that offers a more lightweight experience than Second Life — not a comparable one — would do more for the growth of the 3D Web, and allow third-party services to spring up to provide payment, friends, messaging, search and other needed functions.

    After all, if the World Wide Web was a feature-for-feature copy of AOL, we wouldn’t now have Amazon, Google, Yahoo, eBay, PayPal, Facebook or the many other services that make the Web great.

    — Maria

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  • Maria, I think we've actually agreeing with each other! Today's viewers are like the AOL proprietary browser. Ultimately, I think that we need to move to a model where the viewer interface is created dynamically, just as web applications (from companies such as Amazon, Google, etc) do on the web today. That way, different grids or virtual environments can present their own unique interfaces and not be tied to what the viewer happens to provide.