Linden Lab Approaches A Crossroads
In the space of two days, Linden Lab, maker of the virtual world of Second Life, has made three separate announcements that indicate trouble may be on the horizon for the company — if it hasn’t already arrived. Two of them have raised renewed alarms about the platform’s scalability. Though CEO Philip Rosedale blithely assured the world last summer that Second Life could “scale to inifinity,” he seemed to be the only one who believed such an absurd claim. The skeptics are now being proven correct. And instead of concentrating all of its firepower on solving the current problem, the Lab is also casting about for ideas on how to beef up its 2D Web interface — despite the fact that any number of developers large and small are already working on the same thing. Is trouble ahead? It sure smells like it. Read on for our conclusions as to why. Though this post may be overly alarmist, to a certain extent, we’re looking at serious issues here. Take it with a grain of salt, but not too big a grain.
Thursday saw the announcement that Linden Lab was seeking a leader of global technical operations. “Linden Lab is going through enormous growth and rapidly getting into operations challenges that most companies have never seen,” Rosedale wrote on the company blog. Those challenges, as any regular user of the service knows, center mostly around the fact that Second Life has been hard pressed to handle the influx of new users in recent months. (So much for infinite scaling.) To address the issue, the Lab will try to hire someone “at the VP or Director level” to “provide high-level strategy and technical leadership” and expand “our elite operations staff with the best possible people.”
This is a tall order. So as a stopgap measure, Linden Lab announced today that it is planning to limit access to the service, if needed, on weekends (when it sees the most use), blocking logins by users who have never transacted any business with the company but who rely on free accounts. Last June, we noted that Linden Lab was creating a de facto tiered service by labelling users’ accounts as “unverified” if they had never bought virtual real estate or purchased currency through the LindeX currency exchange. Now that de facto has become fact; it’s the unverified users that will be locked out in the case of a weekend overload.
Between those two announcements came a plea for assistance from users as to what they’d like to see in a 2D Web interface to be known as my.secondlife.com. The effort is described as a “major redesign” in coming months that will give users access to certain functions via a 2D Web site. This is great stuff, and well needed. But taken together, all three announcements present some problems.
First off, while the locking out of unverified users on weekends may not come to pass, it certainly looks like Linden Lab feels it will be needed. It can’t be a good sign that this solution, described as a “contingency plan,” was cooked up after the problem arose that it’s designed to solve. Nor can it be reassuring to investors that the Lab’s best solution, at present, is to lock out potential paying customers. Rosedale describes SL’s retention rate as in the area of 10-15 percent. If potential paying customers can’t even get on to try out the service when most of them want to, expect that number to decline further.
The move could also have the effect of alienating metaverse services companies like Millions of Us, Rivers Run Red, and the Electric Sheep Company (sponsors of this blog), among others — and alienating Linden Lab’s best source of new users in the process. These companies and their clients rely on the fact that Second Life is free to all. More than a dozen of the most prominent corporations in America — including all three major television networks, several Hollywood film studios, AOL, auto majors in the U.S. and Europe and many more — have asked their customers to look in on the virtual world experiences that these 3D services firms have created for them. Except that now they won’t be able to do it at the time that’s most convenient for the most users. And unfortunately for the Lab, these companies have been responsible for directing a large stream of users and paying customers toward the platform in recent months. They will be hard pressed to invite their users in if they have to tell them they might not actually be able to show up. Again, if you can’t get in to try it on, you’re not going to buy it.
In addition, corporations and news outlets like Cisco, IBM, Reuters and others are now beginning to use Second Life in the course of doing business. This is a crucial time for the Lab to show them that they’re providing a viable platform for such pursuits. Competitors are just now getting ready to nip at SL’s heels. If major third-party players are turned away by technological problems, they may not even be interested in such competitors. More would be the shame.
At the end of the announcement of the contingency measure, the Lab also laid out its technological roadmap for the next few months, which will include additional caching systems, reducing write load on the central database by partitioning or removing data, addressing critical bottlenecks, and deploying more internal ‘web services.’ “Beyond that we are building ambitious plans for re-architecting the Grid, so that in the future we can realize the full potential of the Second Life Grid to support millions of concurrent users.”
If all this is the case, why on earth is the Lab launching a simultaneous push to increase its services to users on the Web? Not only does it divert resources away from the work on scalability (though of course not every engineer at LL is even qualified to work on that), but it comes at a time when the very foundations of one end of that interface are being rethought. If there are “ambitious plans for re-architecting the Grid” afoot, would it not be better to wait until those plans are settled before writing a system that is to interface with them?
Another important ripple from this 2D effort, though, will be felt by the many developers currently working on the very same services. Companies and developers large and small are currently taking advantage of the fact that the SL client code is now open source to build the same kinds of services LL mentions in its announcement: Web-based management tools for things like friends lists, account management, and various other things. Does LL expect to do an end-run around them and provide a native service that will box them out? It would go against many of the precepts on which the world has been built, but it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened.
Readers of the Second Life Herald will recall that the LindeX currency exchange was opened in August of 2005, in direct competition with a popular user-run currency exchange, which, though it wasn’t forced to, chose to close up shop rather than compete with LL’s 100 percent penetration. Unfortunately, this occurred after LL had had several meetings with the users who ran the exchange, and had allegedly extracted from them many details about its workings.
It now looks like something similar is in the works. 3pointD hears that several of the parties developing Web-based services for Second Life have met with Linden Lab to discuss what they would need in terms of access to database information that would smooth the implementation of such things, and Rosedale has said in the past that the Lab would provide hooks into that information that would be accessible to all. Now LL is forging ahead with its own implementation. This approaches something that stinks. LL’s argument in the case of the currency exchange was that such an important function couldn’t be entrusted to a third party, and there’s some merit to that argument, though not particularly much. The same cannot be said here. The Lab has shown no sign of being particularly handy with Web-based services; why duplicate the efforts already under way by people who may well be better qualified for the task?
Linden Lab’s apparent goal has been to become the gold standard of 3D virtual world platforms. They’ve been successful in that so far in large part because there has not been a competitor as free and open as Second Life. What the Lab looks like doing now, though, is putting up more barriers, rather than pushing further into the openness that has been their biggest comparative advantage. The problems they face in scalability and the task in redesign are not small. (The very concept of a wholesale re-architecting of the platform should rattle nerves.) The good will they’ve won from metaverse services companies, from those firms’ clients and from the press, while it may appear to be stellar, is in reality quite fragile. A backlash has been straining at the leash; the only thing that’s kept it from breaking free is that SL has continued to outpace it. But this week’s developments have the Lab dancing in several different directions at once, and very few of them can be thought of as moving forward.
This is a state of affairs that can only last so long. Linden Lab will have to decide, and soon, which direction it wants to move. Rosedale’s unfortunate flat management style, in which even key teams have in the past been largely self-directed, and feedback is provided by a love machine, cannot stand up to the exigencies of cutting-edge technology. If you want something done, you have to tell your staff exactly what it is.
First, though, you have to decide just what it is you want done, and it’s here that the Lab probably has the most work to do. It’s no use striking off toward three different futures at once; you’ll never reach any of them. Does all this spell the end for Second Life? Probably not, or at least, not yet. But it does put Linden Lab in a more precarious position, and it would take only a little bit of good press directed toward the right competitor for Second Life to be knocked from its perch. That competitor has yet to raise its head, but several are gestating. This year will be a crucial one not just for the future of Linden Lab, but probably for the future of the metaverse itself.
If Second Life falls apart, will the 3D Internet go with it? Probably not. But we will have lost one of the most exciting platforms to come along in quite some time. It will be interesting to see how LL handles its current challenges, and who comes along to further challenge them in the meantime.
[UPDATE: Read a follow-up post featuring a few comments from Linden Lab chief technology officer Cory Ondrejka.]
(Woah. . . . At over 1,800 words, I believe that takes the prize: Longest. Post. Evar. And I vaguely remember a time when all I did in Second Life was a little virtual reporting, some hanging out and some ham-fisted building. Ah, those were the days. . . .)