Second Life : Engage me one more time !

The reduction of 30% of its workforce announced by Linden Lab last week has been a bombshell in the small business world of Second Life and in the fledgling industry of virtual environments.

Adopted by most major media and blogs and, as always, interpreted as another sign of the agony of the company and the end of an era, this information is to be analysed in details at different levels.

Restructuring and downsizing practices are fairly common in the business world. What the press does not mention is that under the influence of Mark Kingdon, Linden Lab had expanded its workforce in the last 2 years to stabilize its platform, professionalizing its concept and completing a cycle of development.

In addition to a faster and more efficient platform, localized into over 10 languages, ant to a simpler viewer (but still not simple enough) with features that allows to share all types of media (including html and flash), Linden Labs can count on its many targeted websites, independent, efficient and functional, integrated in the user experience, and more specifically on a real platform for e-commerce rebranded XStreetSL.

Moreover, Linden Lab is about to finish installing the new grid (built from Havok 7 physics engine which manages the interactions between avatars and objects), and a new version of its browser will soon allow the import of 3D mesh, and the opportunity to name his avatar the way you want. This development opens Second Life to the classic 3D players and aligns with what is practiced in all social networks considering digital identity. The recent purchase of United avatar suggests an extension of brand presence on online social network Facebook-covering and all MMO players to federate around their common passion.

The Second Life of 2010 no longer has much to do with what was in 2006/2007, at the height of the media wave. And the company's strategy remains firmly focused on the "consumers", the creators and more generally the ecosystem of the Platform. The intervention of Tom Hales at SLPro (NMC) was quite clear on that orientation.

This cycle started 2 years ago, ended in a real world where the virtual worlds industry has changed, opening the way to various competing solutions, open-source alternatives to proprietary, where users, players or not, have increased ... With this restructuring, Linden Lab confirms what makes its profits: the rental of its servers, the trade of virtual goods, the exchange of its currency. And even if M. Kingdon said nothing about SL Enterprise, it is clear that the departure of much of the team assigned to its development suggests that the project SL Enterprise will not continue in its current form. Not enough income ? Sure, the sale of thirty solutions do not satisfy the requirements of ROI, but how could Mr. Kingdon hope that this solution would sell in just a few weeks, with an entrance ticket around 80KE, and the necessary mobilization of a chain of business decision often hostile to innovation (especially that one !).

Strategic error or timing error. Linden Lab intends to deliver its servers behind the corporate firewall when companies think more and more to cloud-computerize their infrastructure ... Yet Enterprise Solution is interesting ... but it requires from Linden Lab, a true support that can pay for itself which is not the case now... So, let's be optimistic and let's hope that the beta of Second Life Enterprise will give birth to a new generation of solutions competitive and attractive ... or that Linden Lab will be able to move quickly on projects in progress ... for current projects, there seem to be, Kingdon said in his press release. « It will also enable us to invest in bringing 3D to the web and will strengthen our profitability… »

For here lies one of the keys for a mainstream adoption of 3D web: the simplification of entry requirements, to be able to access 3D on a single click from the browser. Second Life Viewer 2.0. had improved, but access to the platform remains complicated and for businesses, UDP protocol and ports, application installation and the requirement of an advanced user configuration is often a show-stopper in the process of technology adoption.

Linden Lab seems to stake everything today on a radical simplification of the access to Second Life, and ensures that it restructures to accelerate this process. How, that is the question ...

It seems from different interviews that we will not see a Second Life like Habbos or Farmville... that is a Second Life 2D or 2D&half, and that's good, because that vision is the opposite of what is fundamentally a virtual environment in real time 3D.

Linden Lab confirmed to James Wagner: " We're Developing a Second Life Viewer FROM access the Web (Not a Second Life ON the Web ) " What Wagner interprets as possibly a browser that works on WebGL, a specification for 3D display for web browsers and potentially distributable on all terminals quoted by Mark Kingdon (web, iPhone, iPad ...)

Alternatively a Cloud type technology, maybe…. A few months ago, the VP in charge of platforms announced that Linden Lab had conducted several trials of this nature, ..."Rather than using the 'cloud service' metaphor here, it sounds like what you’re talking about is better termed 'server-side rendering' and streaming that content down to machines that would otherwise be unable to run a full 3D client. That is technically possible with Second Life, and we’ve actively demonstrated it internally, with a full Second Life client and all graphics settings set to maximum, while maintaining an impressive framerate.."

Technology is changing rapidly, and competition accelerates the movement, Linden Lab needs to develop ways to offer maximum quality and innovative solutions, to keep the leadership. This could also explain the restructuring.

In fact if you look closer, there is really no big problem with Second Life though he is lacking to reach a broader audience. There are errors of assessment, communication, and a lot of prejudice. There was always something Freudian in the attitude of journalists when they talk about Second Life, a sort of quite incomprehensible love-hate relationship, often seen when it comes to innovation vision (cf Apple and many others). Question of cerebral preferences, forms of intelligence, opening ...

For what other technology today can provide the opportunity to meet and share experiences in real time with more than 6 people in a rich 3D environment? Facebook ?  Linkedin ?  Twitter ? The comparison is senseless and not relevant, and those who use it do not really know what they're talking about ...

What other technology can help create a setting as close to reality for training, online learning and collaboration? (800 universities are present today in virtual worlds)

Yes, virtual environments are frightening, because they offer a potential reality and that reality is disturbing. Yes, virtual environments are certainly a technology transition to new practices that virtual reality should be able to offer in the coming decades.

Restructuring or not, Second Life can continue to live through their community, although less vibrant than before, because often destabilized by changes in "political" (Rosedale departure, increased land prices, closing of games, adult continent, bots ...), but always with its thousands of creators and innovators. And it is conceivable that by posting record profits after restructuring, the company is endowed with all the attractions to a sale or IPO. Open to its residents also, perhaps ....

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