How to hijack the metaverse

We all remember the Microsoft-Netscape battle. Okay, maybe some people don’t, so here’s the summary:

Netscape was a company that made a free Internet browser and and a not-free commercial Web server. (The latter has since been bought by Sun, and open sourced.)

Microsoft built their own version of a Web browser, Internet Explorer, and bundled it with every copy of Windows. Instead of going out of their way to download Netscape, most folks just used Explorer, since it was right there, and almost identical in terms of functionality.

I don’t know how much Microsoft actually won, though — they had to spend money on creating and maintaining the browser, and defending themselves against a very expensive lawsuit and — because of continued competition from Netscape, and, later, Firefox and Chrome — never could charge for Explorer. Maybe they sold a few more copies of their Windows Web Server as a result, but I’m guessing that the companies using it are Microsoft shops all the way, and wouldn’t have used Linux and Apache anyway.

So — assuming that Microsoft hasn’t learned its lesson with Netscape — could this happen again on the 3D web? Absolutely. Here’s how.

Bundling with the OS

We haven’t seen a 3D operating system yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time. Maybe Apple will do it first, and Microsoft follows. Maybe Google. Maybe some other company will jump in and try to make a name for itself with a cool new interface and take the market by storm.

Either way, that same interface can be extended into a virtual world viewer. If the company behind it owns the desktop, they will have the opportunity to dictate — at least for a while — the platform that everyone uses to view, and to run, virtual worlds.

How likely is this? I’d say… 25 percent that they try. How likely it is that this strategy would work depends on when it’s implemented.

The big players are all very much focused on the mobile space right now — and with good reason. It will be a few years before they’re ready to start fighting over another major shift in technology use. By that time, it may be too late for them to get into the game unless they buy up one of the existing players.

Bundling with the browser

This year promises to be the year when we start seeing workable implementations of WebGL and HTML 5 in the browsers. HTML 5 is an important step towards having native 3D applications, but are far from being virtual worlds. But HTML 5 does provide a platform on which code can be written that interacts with a back-end virtual world server, handles avatars and inventories, and takes care of maps, teleports, messages, landmarks, payments, and all the other pieces that go into making a virtual world.

For an example of what this could look like, check out the Kataspaces viewer for Sirikata. Sirikata is an open source virtual world server, more akin to Open Wonderland than OpenSim but in the same general ball park. The Kataspaces viewer is missing some key functionality, such as avatar inventories and weather, but is otherwise a nice, fast demonstration of what a Web-based viewer could look like. And, unlike other Web-live platforms such as Jibe, VenueGen, and Web.alive, no plugin download is required. (3DXplorer is also plugin-less, but requires Java to be installed on the user’s machine.)

HTML 5-based virtual world viewers would offer a number of advantages to users. They run on all machines, irrespective of operating system. They can run on mobile devices. Users don’t have to download plugins or any other software.

Third-party viewer developers are probably going to start working on HTML 5 viewers for OpenSim later on this year or in 2012.

With an HTML 5 viewer — or even earlier, with a viewer built on top of the Unity 3D platform, such as Tipodean — OpenSim use will likely start to grow dramatically. The Web viewer will allow casual users to enter worlds to socialize, attend events, visit museums and art installations, attend classes or business meetings, and collaborate with colleagues. (Those looking for more sophisticated features such as building tools can use use the traditional, downloadable standalone viewers like Imprudence and Second Life viewer 2.)

But there’s nothing keeping Microsoft or Google from themselves integrating a virtual world viewer into their browsers, and this would be much simpler to do than building a whole 3D-enabled operating system. And each company could use this as an opportunity to promote their own virtual world platforms.

For example, Microsoft could, say, buy up ProtoSphere (or build a similar product), and integrate the viewer into each copy of Internet Explorer. Companies using the Microsoft server for their worlds would have a built-in customer base. Or Microsoft could start out with the OpenSim viewer instead, like IBM did with its Lotus Sametime 3D product, fork it, brand it, add in Windows-specific functionality like integration with Sharepoint document repositories, and sell it at a premium price. OpenSim’s BSD license allows just this kind of use.

Google could do the same with its Chrome browser.

If the big guys roll out a product that’s simple for end users to learn, not too expensive for companies to deploy, and with better graphics or functionality or building tools than OpenSim, then enterprises and schools and colleges may adopt it instead of the free, open source platform.

Customers are, after all, willing to pay more for a better or more widely-used product. Most businesses still use Windows instead of Linux and Microsoft Office instead of OpenOffice.

If Microsoft also rolls out a proprietary version of the hypergrid, linking all of these worlds together, then there’s a possibility that it will own the metaverse — or a good chunk of it — until anti-trust regulators force them to allow connectivity.

Bundling with devices

A popular hardware maker such as Hewlett Packard or Dell or Sony or Nintendo or Apple could bundle virtual world viewer software with their hardware. Remember the days when AOL came pre-installed on machines? That could happen again.

These companies can ship their computers or consoles or mobile devices with pre-installed standalone virtual world viewer software. No need to integrate it with the browser — it’s right there on the desktop.

Apple, and video game console manufacturers, are more likely to build and bundle their own virtual world platforms. In fact, they’ve already begun doing so. Sony’s PlayStation Home is a consumer-oriented virtual world platform. It’s unlikely that Home or a similar product will become the foundation of the 3D Web — unless several of these companies get together and build bridges between their various platforms.

While it’s unlikely that Sony will strike an interoperability deal with Nintendo, it could strike a deal with a non-competing company, or create a version of the system that runs on their PCs.

If enough vendors line up behind one platform then it could become the de-facto standard for the metaverse.

This has recently happened with the Blu-Ray standard for DVDs, which was propelled to dominance after Sony built a Blu-Ray player into its PlayStation 3 video game consoles. Sony, Hewlett Packard and Dell teamed up behind the Blu-Ray standard.

A similar alignment of major vendors could create a virtual world standard used by both retail consumers and businesses.

Personally, I think this very unlikely. Hardware manufacturers benefit substantially from having common hardware standards. But video game device makers have typically maintained wall gardens on the software side, having separate ecosystems for their video game developers.

This allows for faster development. Video game players are quick to buy new video game consoles if they offer superior features and game libraries. Both games and consoles become obsolete quickly.

A common standard would slow down development, since any new feature advances would have to be approved by industry committees. And this would lengthen product cycles and reduce industry revenues.

Those consumer who don’t want to pay extra for proprietary platforms buy PC-based video games — a much less competitive and less innovative marketplace.

The AOL blitz

There’s a fourth way that a single company can take over the metaverse — by waging an all-out, AOL-style marketing blitz.

Back in its day, AOL was ubiquitous. In addition to being pre-installed on many computers, AOL disks were sent by direct mail to consumers, slipped into shopping backs at shopping counters, handed out at events, and, I believe, dropped from airplanes and sent home from hospitals with newborn babies. Then, once customers signed up for their free trials, they soon found out that billing was automatic and quitting all but impossible.

Of course, things didn’t end well for AOL. It’s market dominance was short-lived. And then there was the merger with Time-Warner. Eventually, the company became just another portal to the World Wide Web, except for the folks who still pay their monthly AOL bill because they’ve never figured out how to cancel their subscriptions. (Specifically, 75 percent of AOL’s dial-up customers, according to an AOL exec.)

All told, AOL spent over $300 million on sending out all those disks, and, at one point, half of all CD’s produced in the world had AOL logos on them.

And, according the execs, the blitz worked. The company brought in millions of new customers and its stock price skyrocketed.

Can a virtual worlds company do something similar today? Absolutely.

For example, a company — a company with very very deep pockets — could send out a USB stick to everyone with a computer with a virtual world pre-installed.

Of course, there would be a free trial. For a certain number of weeks, you’d get to have your own private universe. Kit it out. Create your avatar. Visit your friends. Join groups and virtual weight-loss programs and go on virtual dates and participate in other kinds of user-friendly pre-packaged activities.

Then the billing would start to kick in, something around $20 a month — little enough to pay for a virtual home. And quitting would not only be painfully difficult, but you’d lose access to your home, your stuff, your virtual friends, your pets.

Hopefully, a company with that kind of money to spend on a marketing campaign would also have a little set aside to create a great user interface, a compelling first-time experience, and plenty of guided content to get folks hooked.

Just because Second Life hasn’t been able to do this successfully doesn’t mean nobody can. After all, there were other dial-up services before AOL.

There were other social networks before Facebook.

There were other tablets before the iPad.

Maria Korolov