Web viewer a potential turning point for SL

Yesterday, Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon promised that Linden Lab is going to develop a Web-based viewer for Second Life. This is, potentially, a major turning point for the company. It could become a portal to the broader 3D Web — or just another closed virtual world, one of thousands available on the Web today.

We are only in year two of the 3D Web.

The hypergrid was invented last year by Crista Lopes, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Today, several thousand OpenSim-based worlds are connected via the hypergrid, allowing fully functional avatar teleports from one world to another. Avatars can visit other worlds to attend meetings and events, give presentations, or simply go shopping. Our Hyperica directory of hypergrid destinations currently indexes more than 250 hypergrid-enabled locations. (And shopping is the number one thing our visitors search for.)

Hundreds of thousands of users are currently on OpenSim, most using behind-the-firewall deployments at educational institutions.

This parallels the development of the World Wide Web. The first website went up in 1991, and for the next couple of years it was dominated by educational institutions and technology firms — much like OpenSim is, today. Visiting the Web was difficult, and browsers was awkward to use. The Web also was lousy compared to America OnLine, Compuserve, and other online communities. If you recall, AOL and its competitors offered email, instant messaging, forums, news, shopping, and a million other things. The early Web had none of that.

Then Mozaic came out in 1993, followed by Netscape in 1994.

These were very simple browsers compared to what AOL had to offer its users. But the browsers were easy enough to use that millions of people began flocking to the Web. And, piece by piece, we started to get some of the functionality previously available only in the closed worlds. Free email with Hotmail, and, later, Gmail. Instant messaging. Search. Shopping.

Netscape had the opportunity to leverage its leading market position to become a portal to the Web, but failed. (The attack by Microsoft Explorer probably didn’t help.) Microsoft did a little bit better at creating a portal, but was late to the game. Instead, startups like Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, Google, and, later, Facebook and Twitter came to dominate the Web.

Today, Linden Lab has the opportunity to become a portal to the 3D Web by creating a Web viewer that can be used to access any world that uses the LibOpenMetaverse communication standard, by building in hypergrid-teleportation support, and by opening up its own world — or some of its world — to hypergrid teleports.

By building a hypergrid-enabled viewer, Linden Lab will be out ahead of the coming 3D Web explosion, and can help guide people through the new metaverse.

It would be a risky move. By embracing the hypergrid, Linden Lab could make it easier for people and institutions to move over to OpenSim or other compatible platforms and run their worlds there at a lower cost, while still remaining accessible to everyone. That could cost the Lindens in terms of lost land revenues.

But it could also create new opportunities. For example, Linden Lab could expand XStreet and Linden Dollars to support the hypergrid, becoming the PayPal and the Amazon of the new 3D Web.

The window of opportunity is closing. Tokyo-based 3Di has already released a Web-based viewer for OpenSim, and, today, released a version of it which works with Android phones. An open source viewer is also available, though not yet fully functional.

Austria-based virtual currency exchange operator VirWoX has a hypergrid-enabled currency, called the Open Metaverse Currency, today available on nine OpenSim grids. The OMC is compatible with hypergrid teleports, allowing easy cross-grid shopping trips. OMC is gaining ground fast, and is taking over from the grid-based currencies that dominate today.

Here is my wishlist for a Web-based viewer:

  • No advanced features. Just move around, touch things, chat, and talk. Everything else can be handled by scripted objects — or by loading up a full downloadable browser.
  • An address bar that actually lets you enter an address, including a hypergrid address, with no distance limits. (Shame on you, 4,096 bug!)
  • Make the viewer embeddable so I can put it in my own website, and expandable, so visitors can click on it to make it fill the whole screen.
  • Have hooks by which a website can interact with the viewer. For example, I’d like to give my visitors the option to use one of my avatars instead of using one they already have by clicking on a picture of an avatar. Or be able to put purchase info in a sidebar, for objects that they’re looking at in-world. (3Di already has this in their commercially available viewer.)

I can see paying extra for a viewer that’s custom designed to work with my company’s back-end systems, like my employee directory, enterprise resource planning systems, or e-commerce catalogs.

And if I was a small user I’d be willing to suffer through some branding. For example, the embeddable YouTube players can take visitors back to the YouTube site — a worthwhile price to pay for the convenience they offer. Linden Lab could do the same with their viewers, allowing visitors to easily teleport to Second Life portal locations.

As a result, every small group using OpenSim to host their meetings and using the Linden Lab viewer to allow Web-based access would, in effect, be promoting Second Life.

Linden Lab could also create a hierarchical, searchable directory of destinations and events on the hypergrid, Yahoo-style. I’d rather they didn’t — after all, we’re trying to do just that with our Hyperica directory.

And, later on, when there are enough hypergates connecting worlds to make a popularity ranking possible, Linden Lab could release a Google-style search engine for the 3D Web.

Will Linden Lab do this? Probably not. AOL had the opportunity and missed it. Microsoft had the chance to move its software online, and, instead, lost that business to Google Apps.

Taking advantage of opportunities like this means losing actual current revenues in favor of some potential, tenuous, future revenues. It’s hard for a reasonable business to make this case — and explains why every new evolution of technology has brought new companies to the forefront.

Meanwhile, I suggest that companies re-read The Innovators Dilemma by Clayton Christensen.

Maria Korolov