They struck gold. It just barely happened to work. But to make money out of it, Linden Lab had to switch markets (from targeting SL to game developers to digital content creators and now to businesses and education for quite different reasons). They did, however, make some bold decisions: listening to Lawrence Lessig and implementing intellectual property protection on user-submitted content (“the user owns the copyright”), allowing the licensing of that content to others through SL’s interface, is dramatic — not even Facebook allows that!
When you add all that up — a combination of technology; innovation; user-generated content where users retain their copyrights and can sell licenses to it; novel business models (3D content hosting!); and luck — you’ll see that launching a new virtual world is anything but a piece of cake!
As a matter of fact, right now, and unless someone is working in a deep, hidden cave on the Next Best Thing, there is really just a competitor to Second Life that has all its features and characteristics, and adds a few more. Yes, it’s Second Life itself — but not the variety that Linden Lab developed, but, of course, OpenSimulator.
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