Immersion or Isolation?

Mashing up the InterGrid

It’s hard to say if Second Life, under the current incarnation or a future one (I believe in a future running the InterGrid with realXtend avatars, OpenSim servers, and LL’s own Open Grid Protocol), is the “right” thing to succeed. We’re bogged down in the nightmare of an excruciatingly painful “first hour” in SL; constant lag even on top-of-the-line computers; failures and crashes well below the 99.7% guaranteed uptime of most Internet-based services; and silly limitations that nobody understands (making content creators and programming specialists tear their collective hairs in frustration) — so it seems that Second Life is a dead end, unless someone can wave a magic wand and “make good what’s wrong”. Alas, products evolve (and so do our expectations!), and while we expect to be able to do a 1000-person rock festival in SL “soon”, we forget that in 2003, 7 people in the same sim could crash it by just chatting normally in text. So the evolution is painfully slow, but it’s not zero — every day something tiny gets fixed, every day something becomes better. SL’s development, however, does not follow the Internet’s growing exponential demand of “good things fast” (a rule that Google seemed to have ignored when launching Lively).

One thing is for sure. The most successful projects on the 2D Web have been based on solid business models. These were the ones surviving the dot-com bubble crashing. “Wishful thinking” that “someone will pay” for a cool idea is not a valid model any more, although people still pretend it is (and will ultimately pay for the consequences). The most creative models are the ones where most of the consumers are getting the service for free, but a few are willing to pay (that’s how WordPress.com is able to pay for the hosting of a million blogs for free; the few VIP users pay enough to allow them to support the infrastructure, and even give away the software for free). Balancing the business model so that enough income is generated to support the “free goodies” is not easy (Linden Lab took four years; allegedly, Amazon, PayPal, or eBay almost took a decade). Twitter’s ultimate failure to address this issue might spell their doom and disappearance — they’re mostly VC capital funding the infrastructure, and allegedly their business model is to sell profiling data of the unsuspecting users — which has a limited market, one that is way smaller than the success they had in attracting new, unpaying clients of their services. A lot of companies are finding out — the hard way — that you cannot run on VC funding only. So if you can’t figure out what a company’s business model is — because all you can see is them giving away things for free — most likely they’ll disappear after the money is spent. A few will be bought by Google, Yahoo, AOL, or Microsoft, but only a very very few will survive.

The next most successful projects are the ones that, beyond a business model, learned how to integrate their products and services with others, and we’re not only talking about technology. eBay managed to “outsource” their arbitration by allowing third parties to arbitrate consumer complaints. Amazon does not only deliver their own books which they buy from publishers; effectively, they allowed third parties to take advantage of Amazon’s own technology (that matches potential buyers of goods with potential market offerings) and offer their goods through Amazon as well (the client might not be aware, until that last screen where they fill the payment data, that a certain product is actually not going to be delivered by Amazon but by an independent merchant who is just using Amazon’s technology).

So on those projects you might see some “longevity”. Taking Twitter’s example again: as a company, Twitter might be doomed, but microblogging took off, and now there are open source and free tools allowing you basically to do the same. They all interoperate and have been developed to allow “federations” of interconnected sites. On the instant messaging front, we see the same happening with Jaber/XMPP (an Internet Standard) of which Google Talk is the most famous example (and the one with more users). MSN and Yahoo already interoperate to a degree; and the last group, AIM/ICQ/iChat, also merged together in a sense. There is little space left for “a new messaging protocol” and only fools try to launch their own (like, well, MySpace…). ICQ, the pioneer, might disappear in the long term, but their ideas of interconnecting people via instant messages will not.

I strongly believe that there is no future in having a thousand (they’re already 150!) different, closed, isolated “virtual world technologies”, all promising to grow at a staggering rate, all promising to be better than anything done before, all funded by “unlimited” VC capital in search of a business model (and giving everything away for free while they invent one), all autistically refusing to accept that the “competition” even exists (because they’re so much better and cleverer at reinventing the wheel). All, apparently, claiming that virtual worlds are “real life” tools (ie. an extension of email addresses, web pages, or instant messaging). All excessively worried that people learn about human beings having sex, to an extent that the obsession makes them to promote a totalitarian control endowed into the company’s employees.

All apparently ignoring what happens on the 2D Web, where exactly the contrary is happening: social web sites interoperate, even if they are all competitors. We embed RockYou slideshows in MySpace, and feed photos from these into Facebook, at the same time we mash them up with our Flickr stream and announce it to the world through an RSS feed from Feedburner, and let everybody know about it on FriendFeed or Ping.fm. Open protocols, interconnection, mashup, integration, open APIs, delivery of creative digital content — all these are the keywords of the current state of the art of the 2D World-Wide Web.

And only one player in the 3D World-Wide Web seems to be very aware of it, and making a serious effort to encourage that. The rest remain hidden behind closed and locked doors.

Business, ultimately, is about interconnecting people and have them exchange services and goods. Not isolate them into closed environments. The last decade of the 20th century should have taught us that on a geopolitical scale — but also on the business side. IBM, Microsoft, Sun, and Apple are still around because they’ve educated their clients that “interconnecting systems” is a good idea.

Let’s see if the new virtual world wannabees also learn the lesson, or if they are just here to make some media splash, raise a few millions in VC funding, sell a few ideas, and quickly disappear without a trace.

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