Microsoft: Metaverse Reloaded

What is Microsoft doing in Second Life, anyway?

This was my April Fool’s Day article for 2007, which even gathered a few comments ๐Ÿ™‚ Sorry to disappoint you, guys, but no, Microsoft is not running for the Metaverse โ€” not yet ๐Ÿ™‚ โ€” Gwyn

The recent announcement of Microsoft Metaverse, due to be launched in July 2007, after the impact of the release of Sony Home โ€” Sony’s own 3D chat built-in in its PS3 โ€” should not have come as a big surprise. First, Microsoft is hardly a new player in virtual world environments. They used to have a Virtual Worlds research division, and their old MusicWorld environment was perhaps a preview in 2001 of what Sony BMG is going to do with Sony Home: allowing people in a 3D environment to share video and audio streaming. So, Microsoft had the skills for launching its own Metaverse back in 2001. But they didn’t. Why? Perhaps they were afraid that the market wasn’t ready in 2001; and just one year after that, while Julian Lombardi’s ViOS collapsed (and he had to co-launch OpenCroquet), Linden Lab started their own “metaverse” with user-created content.

Daniel Terdiman reported last year on C|NET that it was quite clear that Microsoft had ambitious plans of their own, even if what wasn’t clear was what they actually were doing. Sony Home’s “launch” was a bit shaky in terms of concrete answers (as can be seen on the many interviews given by Phil Harisson which can be found on YouTube). It was clear they had started this a long time ago, but what wasn’t clear was the future of Sony Home. Will it just be a place where PS3 gamers will hang around and talk about their favourite games? What about user-created content? Why are the number of simultaneous users on “apartments” (16) and “common spaces” (64) so low? How will this development be funded through a stream of revenues in the future โ€” if at all? Sony reveals technology, but not a business plan. And in this post-bubble days, is that really enough?

Contrast that to Microsoft’s clearly detailed plan to dominate the entertainment industry. Microsoft Metaverse is not the mind’s child of a group of geeky, techy engineers sitting in a cave somewhere, never seeing the light of the day โ€” like in the days of MusicWorld. It’s a massive co-production of both MSN Entertainment and Microsoft Game Studios, who, through the Xbox, have access to at least the same level of content production and platform design than Sony. They can beat Sony on their own field โ€” multimedia (music and audio) and console games. But they have a hidden bonus, which might have been quite obvious for everybody: Microsoft will release their Metaverse Viewer as part of Vista’s announced service pack during the Summer.

So Microsoft will leverage both platforms โ€” console and the desktop โ€” knowing fully well that they already dominate the latter. While the Xbox has some support on the Web, it pales on what Microsoft can leverage out of Microsoft Live. Just see what Microsoft Live’s researchers have been doing recently. In plain English: they weren’t playing games. They knew what they have been preparing.

The timing is right, though. Sony has perhaps announced their own platform a bit “too soon”. Obviously it had to coincide with the launch of the PS3, but it’s clear that while Sony Home has pretty graphics, it has no clearly defined strategy as to what role it might play at Sony. Microsoft has no such qualms. They are pretty much confident that Microsoft Metaverse will become what they wished to attempt with MSN back in 1995: a closed-content environment, fully dominated by Microsoft, only open to their own (licensed) users, and with a huge content production industry targeted for Microsoft’s platform โ€” all their partners.

MSN as a “closed” proprietary system just failed after 6 months because the Internet had a competing, free, open-source product which was already several orders of magnitude larger (in terms of content and user base): the World-Wide Web. Microsoft has no “competition” now. Second Life is the only real alternative (even if one has to concede that Sony Home or Multiverse [a completely different approach] have far nicer graphics than SL), but it’s simply too small. It might have 10 million users when Microsoft Metaverse opens its doors to the public; but will that be enough?

Microsoft is very clever. Sony will offer gamers something nice to play with, and probably add some video and audio on pay-per-view basis. Microsoft will give them everything โ€” user-created content (on the Metaverse SDK to be launched with Vista), information and news, access to exciting new tools and products, all leveraging on the huge family of products that Microsoft already has, but this time โ€” in 3D. Sure, Google has Google Documents & Spreadsheets; but Microsoft had “hosted Office” applications since 2000, and these will now be “inside” Microsoft Metaverse for users to play with. And they are targetting two markets โ€” business and consumers โ€“ through two different platforms and approaches: “do business in the Metaverse” on your Vista-enabled desktop, “have fun on the Metaverse” on your Xbox. It’s the same Metaverse, just two different ways to access it; but in a few years, you can create your avatar on the Xbox and then walk to the office โ€” using your Metaverse Profileโ„ข โ€” using the Vista-based Metaverse Viewer. If your machine has a strong enough video card, the difference will be slight, except that you will be able to read on your desktop the tiny 6-point fonts for the Wall Street Journal on your 3D desktop, while on the Xbox you’ll just have enough resolution to slay Orcs on the TV. But โ€” it’ll be the same avatar, for business and pleasure โ€” the lesson that Microsoft apparently figured out on their virtual presence in SL.

Enabled by Microsoft Passport, Microsoft’s Single Sign-On solution, Microsoft Metaverse avatars will thus roam the new metaverse and be able to access all kinds of services provided by third-party affiliates with Microsoft. Unlike Sony, again, Microsoft is quite clever in defining a strategy for those to come to “their” Metaverse: all existing partners, specially the ones who already produce content for Microsoft (and remember, we’re not talking about games only!), will be encouraged to quickly push their content into the Metaverse. As said, the Metaverse Development SDK will be free; so will the access to Microsoft Metaverse, as long as you have a certified original copy of Vista or a Xbox. Microsoft’s revenue will come through licensing schemes and allowing people to install Microsoft Metaverse Server on top of IIS โ€” for a fee. They have successfully deployed this model for two decades, and it’s quite clear that they will wipe out Sony Home’s own “cranky” scheme out of the world (real โ€” not virtual). Sony Home will still be used by PS3 fans, of course. But back on their desktops they will have Microsoft Metaverse installed.

One wonders what is going on at Google. What will their (announced?) Virtual World look like? The most sceptic among us thought that it would just be “Google Earth with avatars”. Given the impact of Microsoft Metaverse in a few months (remember, most of Microsoft’s games will be ported to Microsoft Metaverse until the end of the year), will Google have a chance? And is the rumour about Apple’s iWorld true? Steve Jobs could obviously have a crack at Microsoft’s Metaverse (which won’t run on a Mac โ€” obviously) and launch a hyped-up, spiced-up version of it โ€” the new graphical subsystem on Mac OS X 10.5 definitely “demands” for something like that. Using either Apple TV or even the iPhone (!) as a “metaverse platform”, and leveraging on iTunes to do basically what Sony BMG or Microsoft Entertainment are doing, and even partnering with AOL/Time Warner (as they did for iChat), Apple’s iWorld could still have a chance to fight back. But โ€” Apple is silent. The iWorld project might not even be “vapourware” but much less than that โ€” just a rumour, an idea that Steve threw around, but focused on nicer gadgets instead. Who will buy an iPhone in June, if you can have a much cooler thing (a whole metaverse!) in July? The dates are definitely not a coincidence.

Where does all this leave us, Second Life fans and evangelisers and long-time supporters? Well, the Metaverse Development Companies will transfer their know-how to Microsoft Metaverse, of course โ€” you cannot ignore it now. SL will not “disappear overnight” but I expect a serious blow in its continuing exponential growth; it will very likely hover around 10 million users, since it will still have a slight advantage over Microsoft: you can have it for free on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and there will be no “control” over content (Microsoft’s Metaverse is a bit unclear on that, but since you’ll be able to run it on your own servers, I suspect that the content will be not controlled there…). So SL will probably still appeal to libertarian and artistic minds; it will be the Netscape to Microsoft’s IE โ€” freedom of choice, involving the community of programmers and creators in defining how “their” metaverse should look like, instead of having something nicely wrapped up by the software industry giant. But as a business, Linden Lab will suffer and struggle to continue their support and development โ€” like Mozilla, they will need to rely on the community more and more. Unlike Mozilla โ€” who was at the forefront of technology, and IE had always to keep up with innovation โ€” Second Life will lag behind Sony Home, and much more behind Microsoft Metaverse, so Linden Lab will have to double and treble their efforts to keep up. This will be their crucial disadvantage, and one that they have only a few months to prepare โ€” we need massive changes now, and not just gradual improvements and almost-daily bug fixes. And, of course, SL could be easily ported to the Xbox and even the PS3 โ€” and who knows, perhaps the Wii! โ€” thus giving users of the console market an alternative.

This will be an interesting year to watch โ€” the battle for the Metaverse (MS or not) has begun. But I suspect that we have a winner already. However, history has shown us that some battles can be won by the puny Davids who overthrew the giant Golias…

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