Will Second Life be the next Netscape?

Two major things happened before the World Wide Web took off in a big way. One was the fact that individuals were able to create Web sites and link them to other Web sites. Once individuals did it — individual researchers, individual teachers, individual hobbists, individual company employees — they proved that there was value to this, and larger organizations followed along behind. This was made possible through the use of HTML authoring standards, and with the Apache server software (later joined by Microsoft Windows Server and other alternatives).

The second big thing that happened was the emergence of Netscape. Prior to that, navigating the Web was too difficult for anyone but the most determined geeks. Anyone else who wanted to go online had to be satisfied with the “walled garden” approach of AOL or Compuserve. It is true that AOL was nicer than the early Web. It had better content, and was nicely organized. The early Web — and the current Web as well, for that matter — was a wild, crazy and unsafe place. Of course, that was probably much of the appeal, and by using Netscape surfers could finally visit all these Websites — both trivial and profound — and see for themselves.

Today, Linden Labs is in the position of AOL, operating a popular walled garden. It’s users get support, access to a large and vibrant community, and a wealth of content. And they pay a premium for the priviledge.

Netscape Navigator

AOL was a fundamentally different type of company from Netscape — even though it eventually wound up buying it. By the time AOL acquired Netscape, the browser company was all but irrelevant, with Internet Explorer coming to dominate the market. AOL had lost its window of opportunity to become the gateway to the entire Internet, not just to its own offerings. It became a portal, just one of a number of alternatives.

With the new viewer, Linden Lab is at a turning point.

The Second Life viewer can already be used to access grids running on other server platforms, such as OpenSim and its derivatives. But it takes a bit of work to set up the viewer to point to a particular OpenSim grid. Third-party viewers like Hippo, Imprudence — and, most recently, Naali — include a grid selection option, allowing users to choose the grid where they want to start their travels. After they’re logged in, they can use hypergrid addresses to travel to other grids on any of these viewers, including Second Life’s official viewer.

But the process is difficult, certainly not intuitive. Traveling from a grid to a second grid if either grid is not hypergrid-enabled requires shutting down the viewer and starting it back up again, and logging in with a new avatar.

Each new third-party viewer release makes the process easier and more streamlined. In a few months, the process will be as simple as surfing from one Web site to another.

Linden Lab now has the opportunity to own the relationship with the world’s metaverse travelers by releasing a viewer that can handle multiple grids.

Yes, such a viewer would cannibalize the company’s current business. It is the classic innovator’s dilemma — you don’t want to destroy your own business, but if you don’t, someone else will.

In this case, if Linden Lab doesn’t release a viewer that can handle multiple worlds, then other groups will, and have.

If Linden Lab owned the multi-world viewer, it could use that viewer to promote its own world and server software — the way that Netscape used it to promote its own Web portal and Web server software (later bought by Sun).

Linden Lab is currently in a very favorable position compared to where AOL was at this same stage in history. AOL’s platform and browser weren’t compatible with that of the World Wide Web. AOL’s browser could only be used to access the AOL platform — not those of other internet service providers.

The Second Life browser, by comparison, can currently be used to access dozens of other public worlds and hundreds — if not thousands — of private OpenSim grids.

Linden Lab has the opportunity — which AOL never had — to embrace the wider universe.

But what about the content? Second Life’s great advantage over other worlds is — in addition to its current user base — the fact that it has so much content and a dynamic ecosystem of professional and amateur creators who keep inventing new stuff.

By opening up the browser to other worlds, won’t there be massive content theft? After all, whenever an object is taken out of inventory and placed on the ground, the guy owning the ground now owns a copy of that object as well. In Second Life, the Lindens own all the land — all the servers are theirs. In OpenSim, the folks running the worlds can be good people, maintaining respect for copyright, or they could be big-time content thieves. For example, someone can come into Second Life, buy copies of everything they wanted, then teleport to their private grid, put everything down on the ground, tweak the world database — after all, they have access to all the files — and give themselves creator rights to everything. There are cheaper and quicker ways to do this, of course, but it’s a valid concern.

Some suggestions:

  • Forced logins: Instead of allowing users to teleport directly to OpenSim grids, log them in, in instead. This means that users will have to set up new accounts on destination grids. Once they’ve logged in once, this information is stored, and next time they travel the process is smooth and relatively seamless — but access to Second Life inventories is not allowed.
  • Empty avatars: Have Second Life servers ignore inventory requests from other grids. Second Life avatars can travel to other grids and bring their appearance and the clothes on their backs, but they won’t be able to change outfits or get new objects out of their inventories after they arrive.
  • Trusted grids: Second Life avatars can only teleport to grids which have a good reputation for protecting copyrights. Those wishing to visit untrusted grids will have to create new accounts.
  • New perms: Create a new type of permission for objects — all rights, all grids. Only those objects which have this permission can be transported to and from other grids. Viewers that don’t support this perm standard won’t be allowed to access the Second Life platform.
Maria Korolov