King of Spades Out, Ace of Hearts In

This is really not for everybody, rather the contrary. It is too demanding for a vast majority of people, who cannot be bothered with more “activity” beyond pressing a button on the TV remote controller. SL gives users too much choice; it demands them to learn too many things.

I really believe that any improvements to SL’s user interface and first-hour-experience will only give marginal growth, and definitely not exponential. It’s true that embedding the SL viewer on a browser will allow some users to try it out, because they were scared to download an application (or simply couldn’t) — so, in a way, the market of potential SL users will expand as new users become more comfortable with the first use (but, again, not exponentially; just marginally so). A more streamlined interface will also allow some people to learn the UI faster, thus enabling them to overcome the first barrier. But that’s not the only one to be overcome. I feel tempted to claim that it’s the less important one, but I know this is not true: or way more than just 10% of all residents would have switched from SL 1.X to 2.X. So, yes, the UI matters, but it shouldn’t — it should be just a matter of taste (e.g. Windows and Mac OS X can do pretty much the same thing, they just have different interfaces; nevertheless, only 10% are interested in having a better interface, the rest prefers to remain stuck with Windows. Microsoft also learned the lesson when it became increasingly more difficult to push users out of Windows XP into Vista and now Win 7. It’s hard. People prefer old interfaces that they’re familiar with).

But even the most streamlined, dumbed-down, easy-to-use interface won’t do miracles. You have to “get” SL in order to remain around. I can imagine that much more people will register, if it’s made much more simpler — but will they remain around? Not really. It takes a few hours to tackle the interface — and this could be reduced to, say, 15 minutes — but it takes weeks or months to “get” SL. Not SL, the viewer, but SL, the environment, the virtual world, the society, the economy… and that is really not for everybody.

This is really the huge challenge for Philip. I know he knows that SL-the-environment is unique and quite unlike anything else. But he might not be aware why it’s unique. The answer, in fact, differs from person to person. For some, SL is just a Lego game for adults. For others, it’s a game of dressing up your avatar. For many it’s just about music. For a lot of them it’s about creative expression in an artistic environment. For a huge chunk, it’s an advanced dating system, where you can remain anonymous and play out your fantasies safely. But the majority is not even in those groups. In fact, the majority is in the vaguest group of all — the group of the ones who know how to entertain themselves, and that can take so many different forms that it’s impossible to list them.

How can a CEO — any CEO — tackle so many conflicting desires and put the company’s energy behind them all simultaneously? I’m sure it’s quite challenging. Years ago I used to say that SL was as hard to market as Web pages; at least that’s what it felt to me, when I did my first public presentations. What was the Web good for? Honestly, in 1994, the answer was “everything and nothing”. It really was one of those viral things that needed a lot of trial & error until an application was found that would make the Web really attractive to everybody. Some like to point at eBay and as good examples of what really kick-started the “Web revolution”. Still, the Web is being used in billions of different ways by billions of different people everywhere; although there is not a company behind the Web, there is the W3C consortium, but it only deals with the technology behind the Web, not its use. There is nobody out there saying what the Web is good for.

Second Life is uncannily similar, but, at the same time, it’s completely different as well. For instance, the Web is good for selling digital content, but most of the transactions on the Web are for atom-based content (although, ironically, e-commerce on the Web started with selling software — and today, thanks to the iPhone, selling applications over the Internet became again a focus, with a new exponential growth). Second Life is all about digital content, but it’s very specific digital content, because it can only be used inside SL. But it’s not a tiny market. It’s worth US$700 million/annually and growing steadily (but not exponentially!). It’s surprisingly stable, depending far less from the influence of the media, even though all hints should point to the opposite (and yes, I’m aware that Supply Linden keeps the L$/USD ratio artificially as stable as possible).

The question is then how to tackle all of this. A virtual environment for self-entertainment with an incredibly stable economy, but with little growth. An almost infinite number of particular tastes, all requiring improvements. And a company that has to prioritise things, it cannot tackle all at the same time.

Philip himself identifies a few areas:

It also really inspired me in thinking about how live music as an example, is something that can get better if we refocus our efforts and do the things we’re trying to do right now at the Lab, to just kind of back up and make Second Life just work. Work better for everybody. I think live music is just a super example of that, we’re so close, there’s a a few things that work — I should say there’s many things that work in Second Life, and then there’s a few things that still don’t work quite right. And if you look at something like live music, you can just imagine how if we could just take away a couple of the barriers — for example, broadcasting a stream is pretty difficult with live music, and of course, having a bunch of people — having there be 20 people sitting at your event and have to tell their friends, and try to bring another 50 people into the event is something that today in Second Life, just doesn’t work very well, that max crowd of people that shows up and shuts off the servers. […]

Make these big changes to the fundamental experience that simply makes it easier, simpler, faster, smoother — for everybody. And I think that if there’s a change in strategy that makes sense, it’s that one. To regroup, to simplify, and to focus on the things that affect everybody. I just saw the word “basic accessibility” there in text, I think that’s a great way of capturing it. The basic accessibility of the world simply needs to be fantastic. And we’re not there yet. And it’s a huge mission, it’s okay that we’re not there […]

So… apparently this shows where LL is going to focus next: increasing the number of avatars in the same region, and, overall, making the experience better for everybody. This sounds a bit like 2007, when Philip announced the end of new features and a focus on stability. I remember that I was a bit frustrated at the time, because, after all, SL didn’t get much more stable in 2007 (although it certainly picked up stability in 2008 and later), and we got few new features to play with. Definitely much less than what we got in 2004/5.

It seems, however, that these are really just very vague areas — not the kind of fixed goals and objectives that Mark Kingdon used to give us. There are no solid suggestions on how to change the underlying technology so that it really supports, say, a thousand avatars in the same region. Philip talks about barriers, and we have a lot of those: the avatar limits, the group limits, the prim limits (megaprims are still not built in the viewer, even though Havok 7 should have no problems — after all, ODE, the open source physics engine for OpenSimulator, has absolutely no problems, and it’s a far less polished product than Havok), the script limits, the built-in delays on scripts, and so forth. Some are purely arbitrary; most are trade-offs (like the delays, which make griefing harder); others are tied to cost (if you take up more CPU, bandwidth and disk space — e. g. more prims and more scripts running inside them — you ought to pay more for what you use); and some are technological assumptions (e.g. the grid being split up in 256×256 tiles, each running from a single CPU inside a virtual machine).

The list is probably too long for a short speech. But it would be helpful if Philip had said something a bit less vague, like: “we are going to get rid of the avatar limit first; this will take us a year”. Then we would at least know what direction he’s going to take.

On the other hand, we should not forget that Philip is just acting as “interim CEO” and thus probably doesn’t expect himself to be the one to set the definitive goals. Being an “interim CEO”, however, doesn’t mean much; Steve Jobs also returned to Apple as “interim CEO” and never left after that. But I’m not sure that Philip really wants to stay around; he’ll probably looking for a good CEO to replace him, he already gave a decade of his life to SL…

But this time the search will be much harder. When Mark Kingdon was hired, the Lab knew at least that they had to deal with the emerging interests of business and education. Kingdon was more than qualified to deal with that; the remaining aspects — like the first-hour experience — would be tackled as part of the overall effort to make Second Life more appealing for enterprise use. Now, however, no CEO will want to tackle the corporate market again. The new CEO will require a deep knowledge of engaging the residential market. This means also knowing how to deal with online communities. And it will be hard to find someone that is aware of the uniqueness of Second Life’s communities.

So is this a change for the best? I think it’s a much more challenging change (sorry about the alliteration!) than ever before, but for quite different reasons. “Going back to residential customers” is something that really requires to understand what residents need. Linden Lab was never very successful with that. I can imagine that merely having the aspiration of dealing with the residents again — as opposed to the focus on “too many things” (which presumably includes targeting SL for the enterprise market) — is a good start. But I believe, like others do, that a lot more has to be done than just having “good intentions”.

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