Politics and Interoperability Standards

After a long period of discussion at the Architecture Working Group, which was trying to establish the ground-works of the Open Grid Protocol — a set of communication protocols defining a way for grids ran by different operators to interconnect and allow people to jump (teleport) from one to another, as well as to exchange content among them — Linden Lab has decided to make a big, bold step ahead: after 16 months of discussion, mostly led by Zero Linden (at his office hours) and IBM’s Zha Ewry, they submitted the discussion over the metaverse interoperability to one standards-defining body, the Internet Engineering Task Force, which is credited with establishing the interoperability protocols that made the Internet what it is today.

There had been some speculations early this year about an imminent “grand announcement” that was forthcoming. Zero had been quiet about it, and declined, for about four months, to comment on it. Recently, in January, after another set of discussions about how to establish trust relationships across grids from different operators — basically, how different operators could trust policies about each other, and revoke the interconnection between both if the policies were not enforced (by either side). This has taken months of discussion; and no single line of code had been written. The Open Grid Protocol only allows teleporting between Linden Lab’s Preview Grid and Open Grid-compliant grids (today, OpenSimulator-based grids), and that’s all.

Discussing the future interoperability protocol that will empower the Metaverse to be a “grid of grids” (the analogy with the Internet as a “network of networks” is obvious) was apparently felt to be too “limited” to be restricted to a small group of SL residents. Historical moments require a little more pomp and circumstance, and Linden Lab made the decision to continue the discussion at a proper standards body. By doing so, they are simply passing on the message that LL is not going to be the sole organisation responsible for defining such a protocol, but releasing it for discussion and implementation as an open Internet standard, using a proper methodology appropriate for an Internet protocol. The MMOX (MMO/Virtual World Interchange [MMOX] Working Group) will be the new group, under the IETF’s aegis, to continue the work that the AWG has been doing so far.

At this point, it would look like the building of the Metaverse’s “grid of grids” would enter a more mature stage. But, alas, the road is not going to be a smooth one.

The first question to ask is why the Architecture Working Group — or, more specifically, the group meeting regularly at Zero Linden’s office hours — have done little to advance the Open Grid Protocol beyond merely simple content-free avatar teleporting. The reason is actually quite easy to understand. Moving a presence from a grid to another is just one thing. Moving content is another.

Second Life® is actually a quite uncommon environment. Mostly thanks to Lawrence Lessig’s ability to persuade Linden Lab to implement user content protection and author identification (what we loosely call “the permission system”) — a means to establish resident’s intellectual property and allow residents to license their content to other users — Linden Lab has brought something unique to the Internet landscape. Why this uniqueness is so problematic requires a bit of history, so bear with me for a short refresh.

Let’s turn the clock back a quarter of a century. In the emerging online systems of the early 1980s, “content”, initially text-based, was confined to isolated systems, although a primitive form of exchanging emails between systems existed (thanks to innovative networking protocols like FidoNet, or UUCP mail). Online giants like America Online or Compuserve introduced a different model: content could be created by third parties, usually paying a huge licensing fee, and deployed to users of that system (Microsoft tried to do the same with the Microsoft Network in the 1990s). Since those systems were proprietary and relied on vendor-provided “content browsers” to access it, content was pretty much protected. But it was, obviously, limited to the network you connected to. Thus, if you wished to have access to both Compuserve and AOL, you’d need to be a client of both.

Two things changed dramatically the landscape of content providing in the digital world. First, of course, a clever British young researcher named Tim Berners-Lee developed the HTTP protocol in 1990 at the CERN (then a leading Internet technology research facility, besides its much more famous work in the field of high-energy physics) to allow a distributed content system to work over the Internet. His idea was that physics PhD students could work on collaborative documents using his very simple protocol. At that time, similar protocols were practically launched every other week, with multiple possible uses, and it would be hard to predict how long-lived they would be. Another bright genius, Marc Andreessen, thought that this relatively new HTTP protocol could be further enhanced if instead of text-only pages it also displayed a few images and graphics — he developed the first graphical Web browser, Mosaic, released in 1993 — surprisingly a bit of software that was quite mature, since even today almost all Web browsers work pretty much the same way. This definitely catapulted the growth of the World-Wide Web (even in the early 1990s, text-based interfaces were hopelessly outdated, and GUIs were in), and, indirectly, of the Internet, as the underlying technology to allow Web browsers to connect to remote Web servers.

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