Why We Need an Open Source Second Life

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last six months, you will have noticed that the virtual world Second Life is much in the news. According to its home page, there are currently around 1,700,000 residents, who are spending $600,000 – that's real, not virtual, money – in the world each day. These figures are a little deceptive – there are typically only 10,000 to 15,000 residents online at any one time, and the money flow is not a rigorous measurement of economic activity – but there is no doubt that Second Life is growing very rapidly; moreover, we are beginning to see it enter the mainstream in a way that has close parallels with the arrival of the Web ten years ago.

Companies are beginning to set up shop in Second Life, including big names like Adidas, American Apparel, Dell, Nissan, Penguin Books, Reebok, Sun Microsystems, Toyota, Reuters and Wired. Often they choose to create their virtual buildings on self-contained islands, which are essentially three-dimensional analogues of the early corporate Web sites: that is, vaguely pretty to look at, but not very functional.

One of the pioneers in Second Life is IBM, which also played an important part in helping to make the Web (and open source) respectable for businesses. Here's what Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technology strategy and innovation at IBM, and the man who oversaw the company's GNU/Linux policy in the early days, says about IBM's interest in Second Life:

I think that what we are seeing is the evolution of the Internet and World Wide Web in incredibly important new directions. Foremost among them is a much more people-centric Web.

We see this people-centric evolution of the Web in social networks and Web 2.0 - capabilities that enable people to find each other, form communities, share information, and collaborate on a variety of endeavors. Now we are bringing to this new people-centric spirit the highly visual, interactive applications in Virtual Worlds. This new breed of applications is being rethought around the people who design them, maintain them and use them, instead of asking those people to come down to the level of the computers.

We can now bring these exciting capabilities, already in wide use in science, engineering, defense and consumer applications, into the worlds of business, education, health care and government. This was the step that led to IBM’s e-business strategy ten years ago. Could we be at the onset of v-business? Based on my initial experiences in Second Life, we are all in for an incredible ride.

His boss, Sam Palmisano has backed up those words with actions. A couple of weeks ago, he entered Second Life himself to give a major speech about IBM's future path, and announced a $100 million fund to create 10 new businesses within the company, including:

3D Internet: Partnering with others to take the best of virtual worlds and gaming environments to build a seamless, standards-based 3D Internet -- the next platform for global commerce and day-to-day business operations.

So, things look bright for Second Life and the other virtual worlds that are being developed. There's just one problem: they are all closed source. This means that free software is falling behind in one of the most innovative areas in computing today.

Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, is very open-source friendly. Its computing infrastructure is based on thousands of servers running GNU/Linux, Apache, Squid and MySQL. Alongside the usual Windows and Macintosh clients for Second Life, there is already one for GNU/Linux (if still a little rough at the edges).

And Linden Lab hopes to go even further by opening sourcing Second Life's software. Here's what Philip Rosedale, Second Life's creator and CEO of Linden Lab, told me during an extensive interview recently, when I asked about his current thinking on opening up the code:

Without speaking to specific timing or plans - and we've thought and are thinking lots and lots where there might be exceptions to this - but it seems like the best way to allow SL to become reliable and scalable and grow. And we've got a lot of smart people here thinking about that.

Further proof of Linden Lab's goodwill towards the free software world can be found in its tacit approval of an open source project to reverse-engineer the Second Life protocols. Called libsecondlife, it has already done valuable work, although this has been overshadowed somewhat by the recent brouhaha over the CopyBot program, which drew on libsecondlife's code. CopyBot allowed some or even all of an object in Second Life to be copied. This is obviously a problem for a virtual economy that depends on selling digital objects. And yet, despite many cries to the contrary, the sky is not falling, as I've explained elsewhere.

More than the blip of CopyBot, there are deep problems that need to be addressed in the context of creating an open source version of Second Life, notably as far as security is concerned. Most of them have to do with how open source clients would interact with Linden Lab's servers, and how it might be possible to allow users to run their own Second Life servers – effectively creating separate virtual worlds based on the same protocols.

As well as libsecondlife, there are a couple of other open source virtual world projects of note. For example, Croquet employs an ambitious approach that goes beyond Second Life in many ways; however, it is still at an early stage. The same can be said about Uni-Verse, a European consortium that includes the foundation behind the popular 3D tool Blender.

These are all useful initiatives, and there will doubtless be others. But if open source is to give the lie to Jim Allchin's famous jibe in the first Halloween Document that it is always "chasing tail-lights", the free software community must become more involved with the existing virtual world projects, and invest much more time and effort in new ones.

Developing expertise with the underlying technologies is particularly important because it is quite possible that the next stage in the Web's evolution will incorporate elements from three-dimensional virtual worlds. Philip Rosedale explained why he thinks that is likely:

People always believe that the idea of simulating a three-dimensional world will make the experience of people in it different because it's three dimensional, and that's certainly true. However, there's a second thing about the 3D web that makes it different than the 2D web, and is really important, which is that there are other people there with you when you're experiencing it.

Look at MySpace. When you go to a MySpace page, you can listen to their music. What is the listening experience like? Well, it's still just you sitting in front of your computer listening alone to that music. But in SL, if you're listening to somebody's music, whether live or pre-recorded, there's a very good chance that there's someone next to you listening to the same music, and so you're able to turn to them and say: What do you think? Or you're able to turn to them and say: Have you been here before, and, if so, do you know where the lawnmower section is?

That, I think, is what makes the potential of the 3D Web different perhaps even more so than the spatial difference between 3D content, and 2D content. And I think that alone makes it very likely that there will be a kind of a 3D Web, that has this shared experience property. That's what everyone will look back on and say: Wow, that is what made it different.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.

______________________

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

god help us...

t's picture

...if this is the future of the net.

You got me curious, so I went over to the second life website -- what am I missing? Oh, look, all the business opportunities for people to make money - designing virtual pets, selling imaginary real-estate, building custom avatars. If this isn't a game, what is it?

To me it looks a lot like Dungeon and Dragons, only the players have invested a lot more real energy and finances into it than Gary Gygax could ever have hoped for.

Just because adults do it, and are willing to spend too much time and money doing so, doesn't make this somehow less whimsical than World of Warcraft, or even Nannymud for that matter.

t

A game?

Glyn Moody's picture

Well, perhaps - but only in the sense that life is a game. Which is also why I think Second Life is so important: it's a (rough) digital version of our analogue world, with all the possibilities and problems that this implies. That's also where it differs from WoW.

And remember: when the Web first came out, everyone said: "I just don't get it - it's just a kind of publishing: what am I missing....?"

SL:The Web as The Web:Publishing?

t's picture

Are you really ready to put SL and real life on equal footing? That's doublepluscreepy. You don't see the difference between mutual suspension of disbelief in a fantasy world with no real consequences and actual life?

It's pretty easy to argue the value added to conventional publishing by web-based publishing - universal access, speed of creation and dissemination, enabling interaction between creators and audience (actually removing the barriers between these groups)...

Can you do the same for Second Life? What's really new here? 3D graphics ? The web is full of 'user-generated content', pretty much by design.

t

No, it's the other way round

Glyn Moody's picture

It's not that I don't see the difference: it's that I don't think there is one in the sense that Second Life (and its successors) are not about "suspension of disbelief in a fantasy world with no real consequences".

There is a growing literature about how, for many people, life in these virtual worlds is *just as real" as the real world in terms of the emotional effects it has on them. What I'm saying is that we can't just dismiss this, but need to deal with it.

On the publishing front, you're right: all sorts of value was added to conventional publishing. But what I meant was that the Web has turned out to be many things other than publishing - e-commerce, communications, collaboration. I believe the same will happen with Second Life or its successors - things which, alas, I am not clever enough to think of now, just as I wasn't clever enough to think of what the Web might become ten years ago.

real life

t's picture

I guess that's what I find disturbing about all of this. If someone gets as much (or more) emotional 'reward' from a virtual world as they do from the real world, my gut reaction is that they need psychological help, not GPL-ed 3D graphics drivers. Or maybe we as a culture need to figure out what it is that alienates so many people from the real world.

Not that I don't enjoy a bit of escapist recreation, digital or otherwise. Part of my reluctance to get on the SL bandwagon is knowing how much time I've wasted on Nannymud and Warcraft. Which, by my own argument, does suggest I may need some help myself...

I'll check back with you in a decade, when we can decide if this was the start of the revolution, or just the latest pac-man.

cheers,

t

I agree

Glyn Moody's picture

As a big fan of RL, I agree that there are deeply worrying aspects to all this. But as a pragmatist, I feel we should start to think about it and try to do it the right way, assuming it is going to be done anyway.

Ten years? I reckon we'll know much sooner than that....

Better get some free 3D drivers quick then

Anonymous's picture

If it's the future of the net (which I highly doubt) then wouldn't it be rather important to make sure we have machines which can run it properly? Free 3D video drivers would be rather helpful, otherwise you'd have a free program which runs glacially, and therefore no one wants to run it.

On the subject of 2ndLife being "the future of the net", I have to call a vannevar on that one. Pushing a metaphor too far is a favorite pastime of technologists, and I believe this is no different.

yes, this is the future of the net...

Anonymous's picture

we are visual creatures capable of processing _vast_ amounts of data.

we are currently limited by our ability to model that data.

Second Life is a step on the way.

Good point

Glyn Moody's picture

Yes, we certainly need to get 3D video drivers sorted out as a pre-requisite.

White Paper
Linux Management with Red Hat Satellite: Measuring Business Impact and ROI

Linux has become a key foundation for supporting today's rapidly growing IT environments. Linux is being used to deploy business applications and databases, trading on its reputation as a low-cost operating environment. For many IT organizations, Linux is a mainstay for deploying Web servers and has evolved from handling basic file, print, and utility workloads to running mission-critical applications and databases, physically, virtually, and in the cloud. As Linux grows in importance in terms of value to the business, managing Linux environments to high standards of service quality — availability, security, and performance — becomes an essential requirement for business success.

Learn More

Sponsored by Red Hat

White Paper
Private PaaS for the Agile Enterprise

If you already use virtualized infrastructure, you are well on your way to leveraging the power of the cloud. Virtualization offers the promise of limitless resources, but how do you manage that scalability when your DevOps team doesn’t scale? In today’s hypercompetitive markets, fast results can make a difference between leading the pack vs. obsolescence. Organizations need more benefits from cloud computing than just raw resources. They need agility, flexibility, convenience, ROI, and control.

Stackato private Platform-as-a-Service technology from ActiveState extends your private cloud infrastructure by creating a private PaaS to provide on-demand availability, flexibility, control, and ultimately, faster time-to-market for your enterprise.

Learn More

Sponsored by ActiveState