Thursday, June 10, 2010

Second Life: New Directions?

In my early morning TechCrunch scan I learned that Linden Lab Lays Off 30 Percent Of Staff. This is already on the main Second Life blogs:

Gwyneth Llewelyn: [Reset] and do a 180ยบ turn
New World Notes: Looking into Linden Lab Layoff Rumors -- UPDATE: Confirmed, 30% Lindens Being Laid Off, Restructured Team to Develop Web-Based Second Life Viewer -- UPDATE 2: My Take on What This Means for SL's Future -- UPDATE 3: Babbage & Other Beloved Lindens Let Go
Official SL blog: A Restructuring For Linden Lab

Of course I am saddened by seeing so many brilliant and creative people go, but I am sure they will soon find other interesting and rewarding things to do.

Concerning the implications for the future of Second Life, I see two important developments:

1) The move reflects a new strategy for Linden Lab, says the company, which aims make its virtual world more browser based, eliminating the need to download any software.

Most articles agree that the SL Web Viewer could be based on Unity3D, which, in my opinion, would be a great choice. See for example the Unity3D based Moondus technology developed by my good friend Bruno Cerboni and his team. Gwyn says "The average user wants to spend 3 minutes registering for an account and expects everything to be immediately obvious after they log in", and I couldn't agree more. Second Life needs to become much easier to use in order to attract and retain casual users, and a web client will at least simplify the installation (The Unity3D plugin auto-installs, and Unity3D support could become a native feature of at least Chrome). Of course running in a browser does not by itself make using SL easier. I think the 2.0 viewer is easier for casual visitors, and I see it as a first step toward the development of what I like to call onion interfaces: a first interface layer designed in such a way as to be extremely easy to use for newcomers, and more layers with more advanced options hidden inside.

2) Linden Lab... let the enterprise group go, which creates a customized version of the virtual world that sits behind a firewall.

To this Gwin adds that Second Life is "focusing again on the consumer market", which seems a solid and pragmatic choice. I had hoped the launch of SL Enterprise a few months ago would start a renaissance of SL as a business collaboration and e-learning platform, but feared that it was too-little-too-late. Too little because other platforms like Teleplace address corporate and professional needs much better (See my article on Telepresence Education for a Smarter World for more thoughts on business and e-learning applications of VR worlds), and too late because, as Gwyn says (disagreeing), "the bad image of SL as a sex-only VW is too strong... The harm is done and LL cannot fix it."

So I think re-focusing SL on the consumer market, and acknowledging that it will never appeal to the more conservative "dinosaurs" in the corporate and educational sectors, make a lot of sense. But this does not mean the smarter professionals, corporations and universities should abandon SL: on the contrary, SL will remain a wonderful creative lab for the more dynamic and creative adventurers, and an enabling platform for many real advances to be made.

It is an important trend that the smarter organizations use IT platform and tools developed for consumers, because they just work better than legacy corporate IT systems. Google Apps is the best example: the integrated business versions of Gmail, Google Docs, Voice, Video and other Google Apps in-the-cloud, initially developed for the consumer market, are so much better and cheaper than equivalent "professional" tools that I expect an exponential adoption, first by the leaner and smarter entities, and then by all the others. And once all collaborative Google Apps integrate multiuser videoconferencing, which seems to be appearing on the horizon, the Google cloud will probably become the standard online collaboration tool used by organizations of any nature and size.

In my post Simple videoconferencing in Second Life I have suggested some ways to integrate Google Apps as a standard videoconferencing and collaboration suite for closed groups in SL. Also, a Web based Unity3D viewer would permit integrating SL as VR part of an Intranet running on Google Apps. I definitely recommend these relatively simple developments which, I believe, would make the consumer-oriented SL much more suitable for professional collaboration as well.