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 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 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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  • Well-written post, Gwyn! I have no interest in joining Lively or any other…ahem…”S3WEVW” worlds (you’re right, someone should coin a term) unless the avatars are better than SL’s. Therefore, I recommend this realXtend video, which showcases FaceGen technology. Could this realistic facemapping be done as easily and well in SL, I wonder? I’ve heard of something similar being offered to SL users by a company whose name escapes me at the moment, but it cost $300 U.S., and the results were….ugh, frightening!

  • Goodness – you elevated one of our lovely chats about virtual world economies into one of your epic ‘blog posts: I’m honoured!

  • Ah, thanks for the YouTube link, 1angelcares… in fact, on page 3 (yes, the posts now have pages!!), I did place a link to YouTube for realXtend, but it’s not the same as yours. Indeed, I do agree: avatars are important, and not all of us like cartoons/anime characters…

    And yes, Ashcroft, it was our chat that definitely inspired me!… as well as one with Tara5 Oh from Ugotrade. We were both cursing and lamenting how the industry is basically moving away from immersive, contiguous virtual worlds to go to closed-room envirnoments..

  • I love the word InterGrid. It is very descriptive of a future VR interconnection. I plan on adopting it myself and using it regularly.

    Your analysis is very sound. It is openness and inclusion that will survive and closed rooms that will fail. And for the reasons you suggested.

    I also appreciate your focus on the business model as the predictor of future success or failure.

    Too many these days have the “If we build it, they will come” mentality, not understanding that it is marketing and a sound income model that determine success regardless of how awesome your art and tech are.

    Great work and analysis. Keep it up, we rely on you for finding out the latest in the 3D world. Thanks!

  • andar909

    hi, andar here, i just read your post. i like very much. agree to you, sir.

  • Gwyn, first I want to acknowledge you for a very obvious and well researched post. (this was probably the longest post I’ve hung in and read completely.)

    Secondly, and this ties into the first, is your wisdom speaks from not just learning from YOUR mistakes, but from the mistakes of others. This is true wisdom, and you so eloquently spoke from it.

    If those that would want to be successful in business would only understand that a community is built by its members, not THE company. And it is those members who will form there economies, the reason to come here (again and again) aka…the Long Tail “Destination Stickiness”. If they don’t it will become a ghost town, as the FREEWAY will bypass them.

    From a historical perspective:

    I lived through some really great and engaging Chat rooms, and IM, starting with ICQ, as an early adopter, (ICQ # 123563). Anyway, my point is, when a company completely controls your existence, as the old MSN chat rooms did, your communities were at the whims of MS, on whether or not your Chat Room stuck around. What typically would happen is the community broke down, most went separate ways. Hence, you now have the FREEWAY, interconnecting these communities (as you pointed out) because they know what works.

    Then you have Second Life. A community always has a dark side, a person always has a dark side. This doesn’t make them bad, per se. What makes them bad BAD is if abuse is allowed or continues. Moralizing, because the FCC has been hammered by some puritans who live in isolated communities already, and the freeway passed them long ago, is an adoption of the minority and is always short lived.

    The dilemma I see with 3D spaces, i.e.; places to go, etc…is that there needs to be a way to sustain the community based upon the members, not some web page geek, not ONE blogger, and not one SIM owner. This massive vision of the Internet also has a microcosm and those that would like to control you as a member are doomed, and its a cause to a breakdown in that community. So, we have to remain mindful not to allow anyone to control us as WE are the FREEWAY.

    Again Gwyn, beyond excellant post, and you just gained a highly respecting you regular reader. 🙂

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