There are components ready to create a decentralized universe of virtual worlds: open source clients (Indra – the official SL client) and open source server software. OpenSim seems to be the current decentralised contender (which offers some SL interoperability) plus others including WoW server software. With the creation of Google’s _Lively_ we’re already seeing a lack of concern with interoperability through name collisions or name theft incidences.
Who stands to benefit from this kind of lack of interoperability? Obviously corporations with the goal of controlling the only available synthetic world would benefit enormously from halting interoperability. Users, then, need to demand interoperability or create systems that operate as such and make those that are not unusable. As users of virtual worlds and synthetic environments, we are responsible for the choices we make about what software we use. Users of Microsoft software are as much responsible for the Microsoft monopoly as is the company itself.
What stands in the way of creating interoperability? One major component of the web’s success is open standards. We need open standards in – and for – synthetic worlds. IBM and Linden Labs are currently working on developing such standards [see: Architecture Working Group].
Friends of mine who are daily Second Life users describe it as just another social networking site – just another place to chat with their friends, buy a cool outfit and have a nice house too. In this way, one can see that the real value of Second Life is in making synthetic worlds accessible. While the initial openness of the web allowed anyone to write html and make websites, one could argue that it was only with MySpace that a true explosion of web authoring took place. MySpace allowed every kid to suddenly have a web page because of the combination of simplicity (fill out this form, pick your song here, upload your photo here) and social value (express your vanity here, look good to your friends here, show how cool you are here). Second Life does something similar; playing to sociability and degrees of vanity through the use of an easy interface designed primarily for creating and buying 3D objects. Perhaps Google’s Lively will demonstrate whether ease of use and a lack of catering for creativity is the adoption benchmark for the next synthetic world interface.
If we think about the synthetic environment of Second Life as a metaphor for the web, where are we at today? In the early days of the web, only universities and advanced scientific laboratories had websites. I remember – as a kid – buying an issue of Scientific American that came with a map of the whole web, all 100 or so websites on a foldout poster. The web then proceeded to become popular with the rollout of Netscape, but really gained mainstream status through the development of _America Online_ (AOL). Now, I’m well aware just how awful America Online is; I’m not sure how many people continue to use it as ISP’s and web hosts began to dramatically multiply and offer alternative services.
I would argue that we are currently at the AOL stage of synthetic world development; beyond the stage of university and military applications but mostly dominated by one or a few corporations (think: AOL or Compuserve as roughly parallel to Linden Labs, Blizzard).
In this metaphor, I’m trying to be clear about distinguishing particular components. At this point, Linden Labs’ main function is serving a synthetic world as the client is open source. Yes, they’re also developing the server software, but the _client_ is open source. This is much like a situation where a single company is acting as the only web server where customers build their websites, just as users of MMO’s build their synthetic homes and characters. Yes, AOL did more than host user’s websites, but for many people their homepages were on AOL’s servers. Similarly, Linden Labs does create some content in-world with most people accessing other’s virtual creations through Second Life.
Given the situation today, one can argue that it is ridiculous to have one or a few companies as exclusive web hosting corporations. Some of these reasons include scalability, freedom of expression and developer freedom. We can also see all of these issues within Second Life, with reports of:
- Multiple avatars in a single sim causing performance problems
- Issues like the recent SL5B celebration rated as PG
- changes to server code breaking existing client additions (as in the University of Michigan’s stereoscopic patches).
If we want to encourage substantial synthetic world growth and continue to use the environments as spaces for creativity and experimentation – not just for corporate profit – then it is critical that we work on open standards and interoperability. Through the employment of software like OpenSim and RealXtend, we can attempt to become independent from the corporate restrictions of Linden Labs.
The recent debate over “prim limits” (ie limiting the number of prims allowed in a sim) reveals the importance of this issue. For Linden Labs, limiting individual user’s processor power is critical to their ability to make a profit and to continue to operate as the primary server of synthetic worlds. While they present themselves as our benevolent benefactors, this position also allows them to ultimately maintain control over what is and is not allowed in this environment. Why is there the strange familial naming of every Linden Labs employee? Is it to give users the feeling that they are part of one big happy family? Or that Linden Labs are our avatar’s loving parents? Would we stand for a world wide web that was hosted by just one corporation?
I propose that we would not seriously invest as much time in web use/web content creation if it was all owned by one corporation which had ultimate say over freedom of expression. What makes the web reliable and open and therefore important is decentralization.