Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Exeunt Philip

Roughly four months after stepping back into Linden Lab as its "interim" leader, Second Life founder Philip Rosedale has left the Lab's CEO position. Linden Lab's chief operating officer and chief financial officer Bob Komin will take over the day-to-day leadership of the company while Linden Lab launches a search for a new CEO. Philip Rosedale will retain his position as chairman of the Linden Lab board of directors and will be involved in the new CEO search, but will now focus most of his energies on LoveMachine, the startup company for which he originally left Linden Lab back in 2009.

Philip Linden mugshots: old and new

Ironically, the announcement comes immediately after Philip Rosedale unveiled the new "look" for his in-world avatar: instead of the spiky-haired, chaps-wearing 2003-era look Rosedale had been sporting for years, now Philip will apparently be seen in-world—if he's ever seen in-world—with a spiky-haired, chaps-wearing look from 2010. The new look wasn't something he created himself; instead, it was created by inworld designer Mars Absent, who won a contest to give Rosedale a makeover. (Some of the other entries are available on Flickr.)

Rosedale's brief return to the CEO position has been marked by the mantra "Fast, Easy, Fun"—improve Second Life's performance, make it easier for people to use, and—of course—make it fun. To his credit, Rosedale did outline a number of concrete goals, many of which he promised would be done by the end of 2010. The Lab has made progress on a number of those goals: Display Names and Mesh uploads are currently in open beta and available to residents on the beta grid, the Web-based SL Marketplace seems to be up and running (although I cannot personally access it), the HTTP Assets project has been rolling out, and Linden Lab has been converting Viewer development to its new sprint-based Project Snowstorm in order to bring new features into the viewer at a faster pace. Linden Lab has also accelerated the pace of server software deployment, marking off three segments of the main grid—codenamed Blue Steel, Le Tigre, and Magnum—to test new versions of the critical SL server software out in, well, the real world. "We all feel like we are in a better place now, with a clearer sense of direction and more focus, and are ready to bring someone new into the mix as a leader," Rosedale wrote.

Where Philip's return to the CEO position a few months was generally well-received by the Second Life user community, the reaction to his departure is considerably less positive—even though it was never touted as anything more than an "interim" gig. Although it's almost impossible to take the temperature of the vast number of sub-groups that comprise Second Life's pool of active user, from where I sit the mood seems to be downbeat. After the usability disaster of Viewer 2, substantial layoffs at the company, the black eye dealt to the platform by the now-deceased Emerald viewer, folks were hoping for some good news.

There's a sense in some segments of the Second Life community—again, there's no real way to tell how widespread or well-informed they might be—that Linden Lab is paring itself down to be a more attractive takeover target. A few weeks ago, a bizarre rumour that tech giant Microsoft was looking to buy Linden Lab shot like wildfire through portions of the SL community—mostly the non-technical portions, since from the point of view of revenue and technology such an acquisition is highly unlikely. Linden Lab has also cut back its support offerings even for paid customers, which means the face with which it interacts with its most enthusiastic users, residents, and business operators is changing or disappearing entirely.

I'm not sure how much I buy the idea that Linden Lab is primping itself up for a sale. I'm not a technology investor, or even particularly keen on the whole virtual worlds marketplace, as it were, but I can only see two kinds of companies who would be interested in Second Life right now: video game developers, and social networking firms looking to literally add a new dimension to their work.

I don't think either scenario is particularly plausible. For game developers, the Second Life platform can't be particularly appealing: it doesn't support high levels of concurrency on a single sim (right now 50 people in the same place is a tremendous stressor), and—even with the addition of mesh imports—Second Life really struggles to have the highly curated look and feel of titles available for mainstream gaming platforms like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Simply put, the idea of making the next hot MMORPG or multiplayer strategy game using Second Life is a hard sell, and most of the technology that gaming companies would be interested in—OpenGL in particular—is already available to them. Linden Lab's new marketplace for virtual goods might be interesting to someone, but adapting it to work with another gaming platform is probably about as difficult (or more difficult) than starting from scratch on a homegrown solution.

I also don't see an upside for social networking companies—and I include Google in that category. For as much as some people become completely enveloped in Facebook and YouTube, social networking is not about immersion: it's about making some of the diverse tendrils of interconnectedness in our real lives more accessible and immediate, and then getting out of the way. Although Google has in the past expressed some interest in 3D chatrooms—anyone remember Lively?—the company put the kibosh on that project and has moved on. Although I'm sure Google would love to have birthed Facebook and/or Twitter, let's remember that Google's primary business model is selling advertising. Second Life might have some 20 million user accounts at the moment, only 1.3 million have accessed the service in the last 60 days. (Check for yourself.) There are blogs that get more traffic than that, and they don't have a technology platform to deal with.

Would a company that develops games for social networking service—like Zynga—be interested in Second Life as a way to develop immersive games for sites like Facebook? I don't think so. Second Life doesn't run in a browser, and not a peep has been heard about the lightweight browser-based gateway to SL that Linden Lab talked about back in June. So a scenario like that puts all Linden Lab's value to a social network game company in a technology that, so far, the Lab probably hasn't developed and certainly hasn't deployed. And even if it does exist, it would still need those pesky data centers filled with sims.

Companies I don't think would have any interest in Second Life whatsoever? Big enterprises. The exception here might be IBM—which seems to believe the technology has potential for virtual meetings and user training—but I'd be willing to bet a lot of the fire is being taken out of those notions by things like high-definition multi-location teleconferencing solutions from the likes of Cisco. And Linden Lab did try to roll out a version of Second Life for enterprises, selling them their own sims so they could have their own little virtual worlds behind corporate firewalls. That seems to have gone over like a lead balloon, and was perhaps one of the reasons for the departure of former Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon.

I'm not a technology pundit, and even if I were inclined to read tea leaves I have no qualifications to try to use telepathic superpowers or ouija boards to try to figure out what Linden Lab plans to do with Second Life. What seems clear is that Second Life is nothing—absolutely nothing—without an invested, enthusiastic user community. And lately, they don't have much to be enthusiastic about except each other's resourcefulness and creativity.