The hypergrid’s not for everyone

Ever since Crista Lopes, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine invented the hypergrid in 2009, people have been debating whether grids should be on or off the hypergrid.

On the one hand, the hypergrid is very cool. You can teleport from one grid to another, hopping around like a grasshopper, picking up some freebies here, buying some clothes there, attending a meeting somewhere else, all with one avatar and a single inventory.

On the other hand, hypergrid allows people to take content from one grid to another — and to harass people on other grids, as well.

Some grids hedge their bets. They turn hypergrid on just during open houses, or during the construction phase. Or they only allow hypergrid to certain regions of their grid, and keep the rest private.

What’s the best option? Whatever works for you.

Closed enterprise systems

If you’re a bank using a private grid for training, collaboration and small meetings, you don’t want strangers popping in — and you also don’t want your employees teleporting out with your proprietary documents in hand. If you’re a school, you might want to keep your students away from casinos, sadistic role playing grids and other shady, scary places that exist in the wilds of the hypergrid.

This is similar to the way that a bank would not want to have its teller machines accessible to the Internet, or a school might install filters on classroom computers.

And almost every enterprise has a firewall that keeps outsiders from getting into a company’s proprietary documents, databases, email systems, and intranet sites.

But most enterprises today also have a public-facing, easily-accessible website that offers basic marketing information about the company, or information that’s useful to the public.

Similarly a museum, or a non-profit fundraiser, or an architect showing off a portfolio, or a real estate agency showing off available homes, or a commercial retail grid looking for the maximum possible traffic, might want to be open to the public — and the hypergrid allows anyone from the rest of the metaverse to come and visit.

But once you open up the doors to the public then there’s always the risk that the public will show up — and cause trouble.

Here, the parallel is to the World Wide Web. If you put up a public website, then anyone can come along and copy everything very easily. OpenSim offers more protections than the World Wide Web, but if a visitor has technical skills, then he or she can copy everything except for the scripts in an object — and if they can take the content to a region that they control, then they can pop open the permissions on the object and get at the scripts, as well.

The lack of content protection hasn’t slowed the growth of the Internet, and has given rise to commercial powerhouses like iTunes, where songs are available without cumbersome content protection features. Similarly, the comparatively lower content protections available on the hypergrid compared to closed grids hasn’t slowed the growth of the hypergrid — today, more than half of all public grids are hypergrid-enabled, and the total number of hypergrid-enabled regions is rising faster than non-hypergrid-enabled ones.

Closed commercial grids

But its not just schools and private companies that want to keep content out of the hands of the public. Even with the explosion of the World Wide Web, there are still proprietary technology platforms aimed directly at retail consumers.

In my house, we have several closed, proprietary systems: A Wii gaming console, a PlayStation, an iPhone, and some hand-held video game devices.

Closed, proprietary systems can often offer features that open platforms can’t — such as cutting-edge user interfaces and exclusive content.

Sure, eventually both the interfaces and the content get commoditized and become available for free or at a low-cost on the open platforms. But by that time, the Sonys and the Apples and the Microsofts will have invented something new, to stay ahead of the curve.

Most commercial virtual worlds today are not interoperable — Second Life, Blue Mars, ActiveWorlds, and World of Warcraft  all require that users create new accounts, new avatars, and download new software to access them.

Similarly, in OpenSim, several commercial grids are following the closed route. InWorldz, 3rd Rock Grid and SpotOn3D, for example, all have hypergrid turned off. To visit these grids, users must create new accounts and new avatars. In return, they offer their users some advantages, such as a secure, controlled environment for content creators and technical features that might not yet be available elsewhere on the hypergrid.

Yes, eventually, both the technical features and the content will become available on the hypergrid as well — but, by that point, the successful grids will have innovated even further ahead.

Sharing is good — for the sharer

Do they have to share their inventions with the rest of the world?

It’s to their benefit to do so, but it doesn’t necessarily benefit the rest of the OpenSim community.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but here’s how it works.

Suppose you invent a great new feature, Feature X, that your users just love. They flock to your grid to experience it. You sign up a whole lot of new users. After you’ve gotten the publicity hit, it’s to your advantage to now donate Feature X to the OpenSim community.

That way, Feature X will become part of the core OpenSim deployment, and the burden of supporting this feature and keeping it upgraded and compatible is no longer all on your shoulders. Plus, you’ll get the good press from being a good member of the community.

If you don’t share Feature X, however, then the OpenSim volunteer community will notice the interest in this feature, and hear all the users clamoring for it, and roll out their own version, Feature Y. As OpenSim develops, they will maintain Feature Y, upgrade it, and keep it compatible with the rest of OpenSim. Obviously, they’re not going to care at all about maintaining compatibility with your proprietary Feature X.

Now, instead of inventing the next hot thing, Feature Z, you’ll have to spend time and resources upgrading and maintaining Feature X.

Of course, there’s absolutely no obligation to donate. OpenSim is licensed under the BSD version of the open source license, which allows derivative works to be proprietary. OpenSim also allows plug-in modules. A grid can invent Feature X and write it to be a separate module of OpenSim. As OpenSim evolves, the grid will be able to upgrade the core OpenSim code, and just make the tweaks necessary to keep its module up-to-date.

But even if a grid never donates code back to the OpenSim community, it is still providing a very valuable service.

It is much, much harder to invent a new feature that users will like. It is very easy to reverse-engineer a feature that is already available and proven popular in the market.

It took just a couple of months to bring media-on-a-prim to OpenSim after Second Life rolled it out. And implementing Second Life-compatible meshes took just a day.

By experimenting with the OpenSim platforms, closed grids like InWorldz and SpotOn3D aren’t just providing a valuable service to their users, but also helping lay the ground work for future development of OpenSim. And they’re doing it at great risk — if a particular feature doesn’t work out, they’ll have invested substantial amounts of time and money into proprietary code.

Proprietary add-ons

On the World Wide Web, there are a number of proprietary technologies that make the Web a little big shinier, friendlier, and more usable. Flash, Shockwave, Unity are just a few of the many ways that Websites can embed proprietary technology. Some of these platforms become obsolete over time as Web standards evolve, while others evolve themselves to remain useful.

Web standards evolve slowly, and are decided by committee. So it’s not that difficult to stay ahead.

OpenSim development will also, eventually, become committee-ified, with standard-setting bodies and oversight boards serving to slow development down to a crawl. This is necessary at a certain stage of development, when OpenSim becomes too big and too entrenched for a handful of volunteers to manage in their spare time.

And this will create opportunities for companies to create add-ons and plug-ins and modules that extend the basic OpenSim functionality. Some of these add-ons may even be created by OpenSim developers who get tired waiting for the standards to catch up to their vision of where OpenSim needs to go.

Moving away or ahead of mainline OpenSim is as risky for individual add-on developers as it is for grid managers. OpenSim might come out with a standard, open-source alternative the day after you launch your commercial product — after you’ve mortgaged your house to pay for the development costs. Or OpenSim might veer off in a different direction, making your product instantly irrelevant or obsolete.

The bottom line for users

As a user, should you bet on a closed or open system? On proprietary or open source software?

The rule of thumb for plug-ins is that you use proprietary technology only where you absolutely need it. So if you were putting up a website, you wouldn’t force your visitors to download ten plug-ins — it would slow down your site and drive away your users, not to mention increasing your costs and making your site hard to maintain.

Instead use proprietary plug-ins judiciously, where they directly benefit your bottom line. Just as you would save Flash for just the one key video on your home page, instead of designing your whole website with it, so you should limit your use of proprietary OpenSim modules to where you’ll get the maximum benefit from them.

Once you decide on a commercial plug-in, choosing one from an established firm that is likely to maintain the plug-in in the future is a good bet, even though of course there’s no way to guarantee that a vendor won’t go belly-up tomorrow — or discontinue the one product that you’ve come to rely on most.

If you’re deciding between joining a closed grid and joining an open one, given today’s low OpenSim prices, you should easily be able to do both — just as you probably have a PC at home and also a proprietary video game system. Use your account on the open grid to surf the hypergrid and explore new grids. Use your account on a closed grid to enjoy a safe, secure, tight community of users and content providers.

Maria Korolov