Mandatory reading: Cory Linden’s Town Hall Meeting

Back in early 2006, Cory & Philip kindly gave us a preview of what they would be doing during 2006 in terms of development of its platform. Everything except in-world HTML (Havok was not on the list) was deployed, mostly during the summer of 2006, thus giving us all a good confidence that Linden Lab was being able to deliver what they promised.

Linden Lab is not the “30-ish” employee company any more that it was in late 2004. They have grown to perhaps 250 people or so, with different arrangements with the company — from employees, to freelancers, to outsourced work, even to some open source contributions (the always controversial libSL team, which provides a thousand good tools and reasons for existing, and just one bad one which attracts the media’s attention 🙂 ). Managing all the projects around this huge team is not easy to coordinate, nor even easy to report on.
Cory, however, made yesterday a serious and honest attempt at giving us the timeline for 2007. Most of the things will be “under the hood” — people will just see an SL scaling better, and dealing with more simultaneous users more easily, and probably increasing their client’s performance here and there. But there are a few good reasons to look forward to this great year of 2007:

  • Communications and the SL Protocol revamped. So it’ll be not only (very likely) Jabber IM, but a better way to deal with presence issues (online/offline status). And it’ll be textures streamed over HTTP instead of using their internal UDP-based communications protocol. This should have tons of benefits in the long term: once SL moves to HTTP/HTTPS-only communications with the SL client, you’ll be able to do two things very easily: go through firewalls and use it everywhere and be able to cache the textures on your office proxy server, way beyond the puny 1 GB cache on your own computer. Imagine what that will mean for large locations with hundreds of thousands of users (I’m thinking about students and corporations!), all sharing the same proxy server, all no needing to wait for them to load anymore. If this is well done, it also will mean much less load on the grid servers storing the textures: a little known feature of most ISPs these days is that they attempt to do transparent proxy-cache of downloaded pages to save on bandwidth costs without requiring any user intervention. Now this might be successfully used for SL as well.
  • Physical avatars. They’re coming, they’re coming 🙂 If you have spent some time at the Help Islands with the new users, you will know that most of them will ask always: “so, how do I interact with other avatars?” and my answer has sadly always to be: “you need a device that animate you two simultaneously”. Apparently, other virtual world platforms simply don’t work like that. Well, SL in 2007 will allow you much nicer interactions 🙂
  • Havok is back with a vengeance! Or so they say. This will be attempt #5 to upgrade Havok 1 to something more recent. We’ll see about that. I remain a sceptic 🙂
  • HTML/Flash-on-a-prim. We’ve been waiting for two years for that. Well, the first good news is that most of the work is being done outside Linden Lab (remember the uBrowser project?) and that we did have indeed seen some updates on that area — newer Mozilla libraries, Web profiles, etc. Next will be the “floating HTML” window, then perhaps URL-on-a-parcel (this will be a huge improvement, as I’ve often wrote about), with interactive Flash… and finally, in late 2007, HTML/Flash-on-a-prim. This seems to be the year of Web-and-SL integration in all fronts 🙂
  • Mono: LSL running up to 600 times faster. There is no need to comment on it. Babbage Linden is keeping all of us up to date with the development of Mono in Second Life, and has had working prototypes for over a year now, which were demo’ed before an audience (well, privately). The issues with the integration in the main SL code are mostly dealing with the legacy code — how to make sure that the millions of lines of LSL written for LL’s own virtual machine do not break when LSL is being run on top of Mono. A daunting challenge, having taken a year so far, and probably needing a few more months.
  • Better distributed environment. Much more than a nice buzzword. LL is now learning with specialists from distributed platforms like Amazon and eBay (well, their respective founders are investors in LL, so it’ll be easy to get LL techies to talk to Amazon/eBay techies 🙂 ) and moving the whole infrastructure to a much better model. What does it mean for us? Many more rolling upgrades that can be deployed without shutting the whole grid down, as well as being able to deal better with the load of the centralised servers.
  • Open-source client. Promised in late 2004, probably available in late 2007. Oh yes, the controversy around libSL will never fade. I wonder if there was any controversy around GAIM, the fantastic reverse-engineered library that gets people access to all major IM protocols in the world, and allows fantastic clients to work universally. Very likely the answer is — “not”. People look at the applications, not the protocols, so it’s reasonable to expect that they fear the unknown before they see what they can get out of the technology. So imagine that you get two new open source clients for SL: one taking advantage of the latests and greatest video cards in the market, deploying unrivalled performance on computers designed by gamers. And a “light-weight” SL version that will give you 50 fps on slow hardware, and has everything rendered looking like ActiveWorlds — limited, ugly, clunky, but very very fast on an old computer. Give the community these two extreme examples and let them choose what works best for them (while still maintaining the “middle-of-the-road” approach with the next generations of the LL-supported SL client), and people will suddenly understand why it’s vital that the “Second Life Protocol” is open, public, and well-documented. Until then, we’ll have the Luddists still wishing to burn developers on the stake. Well, we survived the Spanish Inquisition, and nowadays we don’t burn heretics any more, so, given good examples on what can be done with third-party clients will be the key to acceptance of that technology.

All in all, it looks like a good 2007 ahead 🙂

Wise words from Cory Linden:

Also, I would ask folks to remember that when we undertake major changes, it is a little like trying to rebuild the engine of a car, while driving it, and changing to a hydrogen economy, without hitting anyone, losing control, or breaking the car.

Let’s not demand the impossible then, and content ourselves with what is merely doable 🙂

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