Yes, yes, it was a prank!

Firestorm ruling the world

You should have looked at the date first before complaining that the links didn’t work! 🙂

Obviously it was another of my (in)famous April Fool’s pranks, which I try to do (almost) every year. Some years are better than others, because the best pranks are those that are 90% based on reality — which has clearly been the case.

So, no, Linden Lab hasn’t been bought by Facebook, and, as far as I know, Philip Rosedale is still the owner of High Fidelity. My apologies to Ebbe Altberg by placing words in his mouth that he has never uttered. The double picture of Mark and Ebbe side-by-side is fake; as far as I know, there is no such real picture, so I forged one (you might have noticed that the picture from Ebbe comes from his Twitter account!). I was lucky to find a real picture of Philip and Mark together, though, so that image is real, but from a completely different context. The featured image from coldLogic, a shop I adore, also has no huge prims with Facebook Likes in there (and it’s not a prim, either, just something quickly done on Photoshop). So, my apologies to all of you 🙂

Of course, the fun I had writing that article was based on some wild speculation and establishing relationships which might be true. The quote by Zuckerberg about how he envisions his future virtual world to be is actually real; he really seems to be describing Second Life. It’s also true that everybody believes that Philip Rosedale is jumping up and down trying to catch Zuckerberg’s attention (thus the funding announcements, and the interviews showing how well High Fidelity works with the Oculus Rift, etc.), and it’s reasonable to believe that lately Zuckerberg has passed a lot of time with Cory related to his recent acquisition of Oculus VR — Cory is Zuckerberg’s “inside man” on all things related to virtual worlds, and it’s conceivable that Cory might pointed out Linden Lab and High Fidelity as building stones towards Zuckerberg’s new vision. Cory also has successfully sold two companies to Zuckerberg, and in spite of his difference of opinion with Philip, they were once good friends, and it’s very likely that he might have advised Philip on how to “sell” his new company to Zuckerberg. Since Linden Lab has strongly invested in High Fidelity (yes, that’s true as well), it’s also not completely unlikely that Philip might attempt to get a “package deal”. While Philip was still at the board of LL, he might have advised a change of CEO to get Second Life more seen as a “social environment and a virtual goods marketplace”, boosting the chance to sell both companies to Facebook.

All this is conceivable and logical, but obviously it’s absolute wild speculation. Nobody would “leak” such kind of backstage negotiations to the public, even if they actually happened. There were lots of speculations about an eventual buy-out of LL to either Google or Facebook, but nothing came ever out of it. It’s more likely that Facebook acquires High Fidelity — or, as I’ve suggested, Valve — than Linden Lab, though, for the reasons I’ve explained on an earlier article. The new “vision” of Zuckerberg might not necessarily mean that he would prefer to acquire something that works and is profitable — although it makes more business sense — but he might “go wild” and prefer to start something from scratch and drive Linden Lab out of the competition. One easy way to do that would be to prevent Second Life to ever launch a Rift-enabled SL viewer, and I’m sure that good lawyers would allow Zuckerberg to do just that. But, again, in the complex world of financial acquisitions, things are not so obvious as they could be. The move to buy Oculus VR and turn Facebook as a player in the immersive virtual world business was completely unforeseen and unexpected — even though we should have remembered that Zuckerberg has Cory as an advisor, and knows that every other attempt to replicate Linden Lab’s business failed — even with the huge Google brand behind it! So why Zuckerberg believes he can succeed when everybody else failed is unknown — unless, of course, he is, indeed, planning to take over SL’s user base. This would be far-fetched six months ago. But now we know that Facebook bought WhatsApp just for the user base, it’s not unlikely to believe that Zuckerberg might buy Linden Lab just for the sake of having some users in this future immersive virtual goods marketplace with a strong social component.

However, personally, if I were Zuckerberg, I’d totally ignore Linden Lab and High Fidelity — if I had John Carmack working for me (as well as Cory Ondrejka and Jim Purbrick). This mostly means that Zuckerberg has all the tech he needs, he has the money, and he has the brand. What he lacks is users, and a successful business model to push virtual goods to users in a way that pays for the running costs and make a profit. Nobody, in the past decade, has been able to figure that out. Except for Linden Lab. So clearly there are good reasons for Linden Lab to become a potential acquisition — if, indeed, Zuckerberg is serious about his new vision. He seems to be, since he shelled out US$2 billion, putting the money on his mouth. But Second Life lacks the required software to fulfill Zuckerberg’s new vision. He has certainly the means to develop everything on his own — or just buy Philip’s High Fidelity and get the tech without needing to invest anything. So this suggestion to create a “virtual world division” within Facebook with hardware (Oculus VR), software (High Fidelity), and users and content (Linden Lab) does actually make sense. Specially if we take into account that all these people have already worked together or for each other!

Inara Pey made a comment that actually makes more sense. Instead of buying Linden Lab, Facebook might instead buy… Kitely. She argues, with rather impeccable logic, that Kitely has a more innovative model of dealing with performance issues (on-demand regions!), are based on mostly open source code (to which they have added their own proprietary fixes), and, because they’re a much smaller company — although, unlike High Fidelity, they already have users and content and a working business model that earns Kitely money — they might be much easier (and cheaper!) to buy than Linden Lab, without the complex legal issues that would surround LL’s acquisition. Kitely’s launch of their cross-grid (inter-grid?) Marketplace also seems to go along Zuckerberg’s thoughts that selling virtual goods inside an immersive world is a good idea. Kitely’s leading developer is now also a OpenSimulator Core Developer. The only things going against Kitely is that they don’t “own” the viewer, and TPVs are not enabled for the Oculus Rift — while LL has a working Rift-compatible viewer running in close beta. I’m sure that this code will trickle back to the open source community, and that TPVs might make use of it soon, but if Facebook bought Kitely, they would have a problem: Linden Lab certainly wouldn’t be interested in continuing to develop a viewer that would be used by their competition (and Facebook + Kitely would certainly be a strong competitor!). They would have to start a viewer from scratch. But by doing that, it would probably make no sense to keep the whole concept behind Second Life and OpenSimulator — which in turn would mean abandoning the SL/OS user base and the existing content for both.

Maria Korolov, and specially the dozens of comments on her article The Race is On, propose a slightly different concept. Facebook already has the technological means to handle back-end databases for a billion users — e. g. what we would call the asset servers: inventory, communication, profiles, etc. What they lack is actually a simulator, that is, the software that makes avatars interact in a 3D environment. This they could easily grab from OpenSimulator and do something akin to what Kitely does: give everybody a free region which would be launched on-demand. Then they would have just to invest in designing a solution to handle “millions of avatars” in a single place — paying premium for that! — which they can do building upon Intel’s DSG framework, which already handles “thousands of avatars”. However, the vast majority of Facebook users would not need “millions of avatars” — just a place to hang around with some dozens of friends, who would not be all online at the same time. Using this model, Facebook could easily have an OpenSimulator-based solution ready in time for the Oculus VR launch on the shops, and just work on improving those edge cases. And it would also mean not needing to buy either Linden Lab or High Fidelity (but, again, Kitely would be a prime candidate for being bought!). It would still mean having to deal with the need for a LL-independent viewer, of course (they could get realXtend, though) .

Also, in my article, I wildly assumed that High Fidelity would “play nice” with Second Life content. I’ve been taking a look at High Fidelity — it is, after all, an open source project running under GitHub, it’s officially in alpha now (probably to allow Zuckerberg to play with it!), and you can download and compile it (although it’s rather tricky to do so! I haven’t managed to get it compiled yet!). Besides the voxel engine (as opposed to “plain” meshes), it features a “distributed grid model” which smells like OpenCobalt’s. Whatever the finishing product looks like, it’s clear that porting SL’s content — specially anything with scripts in it! — won’t be easy. On the other hand, it’s clear that High Fidelity is still at a very early stage. In terms of maturity, it’s certainly not at the same stage that the Rift is — which have sold two generations of working prototypes to several thousands world-wide, and the final product is probably just a question of polishing and fine-tuning. HiFi still has years of development ahead. Linden Lab’s Rift-compatible viewer should be finished at the time that the Rift actually appears on the shelves. So, between the three possible speculative choices — Second Life, Kitely, High Fidelity — a safer bet would be to buy LL now and get a Rift-compatible virtual world without fuss in a few months. If Zuckerberg is willing to wait, then Kitely (which would need to develop a new viewer from scratch to avoid issues with LL) or HiFi (which is far from showing anything) might be better choices. There are other players in the market: IMVU is still around and growing (but its lack of visual contiguity would mean that having Rift to visit “chatrooms” might be too boring), and so is (but their graphics are waaaaay too outdated)…

So, sure, yesterday’s article of was a prank. But like all my pranks, it had its roots in the realms of plausibility and possibility. That doesn’t mean it will actually happen. In fact, the Golden Rule of Gwyneth says, “if it has been an April Fool’s prank on my blog, it will never be true” 🙂 Let’s see if my rule still continues to apply 🙂

Last but not least, I have to thank all of you who bothered to read my blog — there was a huge spike in readers, from the usual 50-80 (mostly spambots and crawlers and the odd human), to 738 (as measured by WordPress), on that single post alone, which is something I haven’t seen since, uh, 2007 or so! (Although, to be honest, I have so many caching levels that I have no way to know how accurate that statistic is). It also allowed me to stress-test my (relatively recent) server, which plodded along without “feeling the heat”, so I guess all was fine. Thanks all!

P. S. Is it just me, or do you also find it strange that Facebook’s CEO in German means “mountain of sugar”, while Linden Lab’s CEO is called “mountains of alts”?… Ah, wait, no, “old mountain” would be a better translation 🙂 Heh!

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