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Google to buy Linden Lab

Warning: This article was naturally an April Fool’s Day prank!

Well, so after the good news on the new round of funding, it shouldn’t come as a surprise what the next step would be going to be: Linden Lab is to become a Google Affiliate.

This news shouldn’t come as a surprise to most of us. Both companies have a similar origin: they started with visionaries who had access to a certain technology (available, but not being used). They are really not much spread in time: Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google in 1998, Philip Rosedale started Linden Lab in 1999. They come from an Internet generation where a good idea could give a start-up a really good kick forwards.

Both also use the same approach: instead of buying supercomputers of billions of dollars in hardware, software, and, most important, maintenance costs — they created their own “grid computers” instead, using slim, relatively cheap Intel-based PCs, and running Linux on top of them. Google’s technological achievement was the so-called Google File System; Linden Lab’s technological advance was the grid with dynamically streamed content, since we all know that this technology was “invented” by Philip himself over a decade ago.

Both companies have a strange way to deal with the status quo; they simply refuse to work the way you expect companies to work. Google launches amazing services for free. When Microsoft’s Hotmail was announcing “10 MBytes” of mailboxes, Google Mail was launched with a Gigabyte. Microsoft’s never fully deployed “Terra project” (now replaced) was superseded by the incredibly successful “Google Earth” — superior in all aspects. Google launched Google Talk using Jabber (with Apple following suit) instead of creating their own IM protocol. All of these strangely for free. All of these also weirdly being paid for with advertising; in an epoch where advertising on web pages was supposed to be a financial flop, after the Internet bubble. Google seemed not to care.

Second Life is also highly irregular. It has free access; all the content is created by the users; Linden Lab invented the concept of becoming the first 3D content hosting provider (or at least the first to successfully implement it). People are still fighting about what “land” in Second Life means. The whole area is so radically new that no one really understands it, and even Linden Lab is not so successful in promoting it.

Users of Second Life were always afraid that Linden Lab would be simply bought by the big and ugly entertainment industry giants — Electronic Arts, Sony Entertainment, or Microsoft. They would swallow it up and spit it out as a completely different product. It would become a Disneyland, PG-rated MMOG, something like a direct competitor to or The Sims Online. Philip repeatedly assured us that he wouldn’t do that.

So, why Google? Well, the content giant has a wholly different concept. Google is expanding to encompass all content and make it searchable. They started with web pages, then images, then newsgroups, then mailing lists… and then it was videos… then, the whole Earth… and also social networking (Orkut). It seems that Google wants to index and search the whole world.

Linden Lab got funding from the “pillars” of the Internet as we know it: eBay; Amazon; Mozilla Foundation. Still, Second Life does not feature a good search engine. You develop content there, but you cannot index it properly, and it’s hard to find it. Users of Second Life have toyed with the idea of getting a Google search engine inside SL; that’s what we need, and some people have toyed with this concept.

All this seemed to be building up in the past months; Philip has been “absent” from the world and still telling us that Linden Lab was becoming more and more “profitable” (or at least not operating at a loss); after the last round of funding, we understood that what Linden Lab was after was growth. 170,000 users are simply not interesting enough. The goal to reach a million is very clear on Linden Lab’s roadmap; but even a million might not be enough. No, for 3D content hosting to succeed, it must reach the hundreds of millions, and very fast.

Sadly, Second Life could not go “the easy way out”: selling the technology to the military, and thus get the required funding to grow; has beaten Linden Lab to that. So, an alternative would have to be found — quickly.

Enter Google. For some miracle, two software engineers back in 1998 amazed the world with a technology that indexes the whole world and is able to have half of the global market share of search engines. They certainly know how to handle growth, and not only deal with that successfully, but efficiently. Google was the fastest search engine in 1998 with a few dozens of thousands of users; it still is the fastest one in 2007, with hundreds of millions of users, and an Internet that is perhaps 100 times bigger. We know how they do that — through their technical papers — but implementing it is a completely different story.

What Philip seemed to have noticed is that this know-how is definitely what Linden Lab requires to reach his own personal goal of creating the roots of the Metaverse. Linden Lab is too small for such an ambitious goal. Google, by contrast, may be a specialist in indexing text (although they’re quite good at indexing images and videos these days…), but they have a team of a thousand software engineering experts (yes, a thousand…) who are at the forefront of overcoming technical hurdles of dealing effortlessly and efficiently with projects of huge size. This is the kind of technology Linden Lab needs.

Why would Google “need” Second Life? Well, the Google guys have been online often (don’t ask me for their avatar names; I won’t reveal the RL data!) and have seen what Second Life is able to do. Google has some experience dealing with 3D worlds, as we can observe at their attempts with Google Earth. Still, they wish to do more; I think that the notion of the “Desktop Google” has been tossed around very often, but there was nothing “new” with it — still 2D, still looking too much like a browser or a common application, no matter how cool AJAX is. The Google guys are not afraid of doing things in radically new ways. The 3D desktop has been announced by many, but Second Life is the closest we have to it.

Second Life is also a social network (not unlike Orkut, just with less friendly searching tools), a 3D blog (much more sophisticated than Blogger), and, naturally, a self-sustained economy, “created” from scratch just because people have Second Life. This is not unlike Google AdSense — it only exists because Google invented it. So, it seems that Page & Brin and Philip ‘Linden’ Rosedale are very much aligned in what they think the “virtual world” of the Metaverse should look like. What Philip has is the radical notion that it should be a 3D world; Page & Brin, on the other hand, have the means, the technology, and certainly the money to make it come true.

Second Life, as a platform, will not “disappear”. What I’ve understood is that Linden Lab will just be an “affiliate” — i.e. part of the larger “Google family”, but its identity and culture will remain intact. However, this “credibility” given by Google will allow Linden Lab, at this stage, to bring what we desperately need to Second Life: good searching and indexing for content. As a bonus, we might start to see our profiles searchable through Orkut; and in-world IM will be fully integrated into Google Talk; and highly likely we’ll have TypeKey to do single sign-on authentication into Second Life. People already are used to getting a Gmail account with their avatar names. So, in a sense, all this will now accelerate dramatically, and Second Life will be “googlified” pretty quickly. I can’t see but advantages in this approach…

On a second stage, Linden Lab will be able to grow Second Life to a scale no one could imagine back in 2002. By the year’s end, anyone having a Google account will be able to have an extra link on the profile page saying “Join Google Second Life”; and this will mean hundreds of millions of users in a short time. Forget the issues of the grid growth; Google has enough horsepower on their servers to deal with that. Instead of having people fighting about a handful of sims, we’ll see sims being added to the grid at a pace that will make our head spin; if I understand the way the Google File System works, this would probably mean that each and every server of the hundreds of thousands hosted by Google worldwide will now be able to run the Second Life server software as well. Imagine what that will mean — not in 2020 or 2030 or 2050… but very likely before 2010!

I was always a bit confused why Google, on their Google Talk software, had so few features — just a “bare-bones” messenger, while competing products add all sorts of niceties, talking 2D cartoonish avatars, VoIP, etc. Well, I think it’s now obvious. Google Talk is just a step away to be replaced by Google Second Life; if you wish to have the full experience of IMing in chat rooms, do it the 3D way — go into Google’s virtual world. Seriously, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ or AIM cannot compete with that. In another 4 or 5 years, they will be forgotten (who still remembers — or uses, since it’s still online — AltaVista?).

2006 will definitely be the year to celebrate; what encourages me at this stage is that now Linden Lab will have ample breathing space to grow. And perhaps now our close friends in RL who have shunned us while we invested our time and effort in building this virtual world will now understand why we do it every day.

After all, if Page & Brin got the message, I guess most of our friends and family will now understand us, too.

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