Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Heads Roll at Linden Lab

Linden Lab, the company that develops and operates Second Life, has announced a significant restructuring that will see the firm jettisoning about 30 percent of its employees and shift focus towards making Second Life a browser-based, social-networking-aware experience that does not require dedicated client software. Here's the official statement.

A few Second Life watchers have begun collecting lists of Linden Lab employees known or believed to have been given their walking papers today. (Crap Mariner has a thread on Plurk; New World Notes also has a piece collecting information on the layoffs.) I'm not deeply familiar with Linden Lab's internal structure, nor am I on chatting terms with any Linden Lab employees; however, it appears the layoffs include several long-time employees well-known in the user community (though not necessarily well-loved) and some executive-level folks. Reports also have Linden Lab closing their Singapore office (this just a couple months after opening an office in Amsterdam to some horn-blowing).

Linden Lab reportedly has about 300 employees; a 30 percent reduction in force therefore translates to about 90 people. Some lists of layed off Lindens circulating at the moment have over 100 names.

Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon—aka M Linden—positions the restructuring as a way to "generate efficiencies:" focus the Lab on things Second Lifers care most about, cutting away distractions that crept in during a "two-year investment period" in which the Lab tried to solidify the platform and improve the "overall user experience."

Here are the things Kingdon believes the Second Life needs to be focusing on:
  • A Web browser-based interface with Second Life that will enable users to tap into the virtual world without dedicated client software;

  • Increased integration with social networking services (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, etc.);

  • Second Life Marketplace, it's virtual goods market that Linden Lab is set to roll out any day now (actually, I think the big inventory migration was today) from XstreetSL;

  • Mobile applications so users can interact with the virtual world.

That's all very buzzword-compliant. About the only things missing are "tablet" and "cloud."

Kingdon notes that these changes are being made while Linden Lab is making bank on Second Life: in his own words, the company has "a strong balance sheet, and our revenue will reach record levels this year." We're to believe this isn't about money, but about change, and the employee reductions will come from software development and customer support through consolidation.

SL in a Browser?

I think a browser-based gateway to Second Life is a great idea, and, honestly, when I signed into SL for the first time almost two years ago I was stunned there was not a Web-based interface to portions of the SL universe.

So far, the Lindens have said nothing about the scope of this new browser-based initiative: they might be viewing access to Second Life via a Web browser as a kind of "SL Lite" that lets people "see" the virtual world and perform basic tasks like, say, dressing their avatar, buying and spending Linden dollars, and getting to concerts and in-world events (like trivia games). Or (I doubt it) they might be looking at converting SL to a Web-only virtual world. We don't know yet.

Either way, a browser-based version of SL is almost certainly going to rely on WebGL, an emerging 3D technology based on OpenGL (upon which Second Life is based). In theory, WebGL—in conjunction with a n HTML5-savvy browser—could be used to put something like Second Life inside a Web page: avatars could appear, prims could be rendered, textured could be painted on the prims, and to a degree those items can be made to move and respond to events. However, the idea of replicating the entirety of a Second Life viewer application using WebGL and, say, JavaScript and Ajax is beyond daunting: I'm not a OpenGL developer, but my read of the specification and technical capabilities of the standard—which is still being birthed—is that it's quite a lot less sophisticated than SL's existing technology. I think it's safe to assume that a Web-based version of Second Life will not be as rich as the experience offered by current client software: I imagine it will be like taking Second Life back to 2007 on a slow computer.

Why would someone want to access SL from a browser? Because you don't always have a computer. Just this week I didn't have the bandwidth or computing resources to log into SL for a few days. Without the client software, I can't receive inventory items (folks were sending me messages in notecards), pay my rent (can't click a rental box or send Linden dollars to an avatar!), or communicate with folks I only know in-world. (Linden Lab used to make something called SLim, an instant messaging-only client developed reportedly developed by the company that provides SL's in-world voice service. I never tried and heard horrible things; Linden Lab killed it off in March.) Being able to use a modern Web browser (say, a guest account at a library or a friend's house or whatever) to attend a meeting or take care of a quick bit of business would be great.

A lightweight browser-based interface to Second Life already exists: Ajax Life. It's not an official viewer, and you get to decide if you trust it (or someone in the loop) not to steal your password. You can't move around or see the world in Ajaxlife, but you can talk to people, manage inventory, and spend money. Ajaxlife was originally written by Katherine Berry when she was 15; it was defunct for a while Berry is now 18 and Ajaxlife is back. Berry starts at MIT soon, and is also apparently an Emerald developer as well as the creator of the Web service.

If I were to guess, I'd say we're at least 18 months away from an initial version of Second Life using WebGL.

Mobile? Social networking?

How does a virtual world extend to social networking and folks' mobile Internet experience? Through messages, updates, and transactions. These can go both ways: from Second Life to the rest of the world, or from mobile and social networking users to Second Life.

Folks who are comfortable having their avatars act as public ambassadors for the platform could link up their social networking profiles and pump their in-world activity to the world via social networks like Twitter, Plurk, Google Buzz, or (if they're OK with associating their real-life identity with their avatar) Facebook. Linden Lab would love to have tens of thousands of avatars out there posting public messages like "I just bought a dragon in Second Life!" or "Everyone come visit my Second Life flying island!"

The other way around, a Second Life application for (say) Facebook could let folks keep up with their in-world friends, and maybe engage in some actions that can only happen in-world at the moment: sending instant messages, managing inventory, making payments, or perhaps deciding to buy that dragon as a gift for your friend with the flying island.

Mobile applications could work the same way: it might be neat to use your Android phone to message with Second Life avatars, or participate in a virtual meeting via text or voice. Similarly, it might be fun you use your iPhone or iPad to shop for stuff for your avatar while you're riding the train home.

I think these are all fine ideas. However, services and applications like this must give residents total control over their privacy and how information is shared.

Linden Lab has been riffing on people hooking up their avatars with their real-life identities lately: Linden Lab's banner ads on the Internet feature side-by-side portraits of Second Life users and their avatars; these stem from "A Few Good Avatars" contest (on Facebook!) that invited residents to post portraits of themselves next to their avatars. A one-off marketing ploy, or a deeper sense of the RL/SL integration Linden Labs wants to focus on? After all, the main reason Facebook has a "no avatars" policy is because advertisers and "partners" don't want to track information about assumed identities: they want information about real people with credit cards. So does Linden Lab.

Some months ago Linden Lab redid the Second Life Web site to include a "dashboard" for residents. I've never understood this dashboard, but every Second Life resident has a Web-accessible profile—here's mine—and Linden Lab already has forums and a currency exchange system and an online marketplace (which, again, I've never been able to figure out). Linden Lab recently bought Avatars United, a social networking service supposedly designed explicitly for avatars rather than real people. (Not just SL avatars: avies from other systems were welcome too.) Nothing much seems to have happened with that; I know of no one actively using it, and a few who tried were griefed.

And How Is This Going to Happen?

So here's my take on the Great Linden Layoff of June 2010:

The idea of a browser-based "SL Lite," along with mobile and Web-based applications that let folks manage and keep track of their Second Lives without a full-blown client application seem like good ideas.

However. Linden Lab has rolled out a new Viewer with key features that have remained fundamentally broken for over two months and is widely reviled by its existing user base. Linden Lab bought XStreetSL almost a year and a half ago and is just now starting to launch its Second Life Marketplace. Linden Lab relaunched the Second Life Web site and has failed to address major usability issues. The Second Life grid has not been stable—in addition to, oh, let's call it a major meltdown back in April—public status reports are rife with outages and my own and admittedly non-representative experience of my friends is that getting into and around the world is getting more and more unreliable. Content theft remains a huge issue to many in-world businesses, and Linden Lab hasn't outlined any ways its planning to make the world a safer place for the folks who are, um, actually building it.

How is Linden Lab going to keep Second Life running, address all these issues, evangelize and advance their platform (mesh imports are supposedly coming any second now)—and take on these bold new initiatives—with 30 percent fewer hands on deck?

My bet? They aren't.

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