Ripples In The Pond

After many long months of waiting for any word on the Lab’s upcoming major feature Direct Delivery, these past two weeks have been dominated by news of nothing else. It’s understandable because Direct Delivery will be a major revolution in how virtual goods purchased from the SL Marketplace are delivered. And yes I mean “revolution”, because even though it might seem a logical evolution, the possibilities of how it can be used and should be used going forward are capable of revitalizing Second Life … if done right.

With today’s post I am going to spend some time talking about things that we probably didn’t think about too much, and most likely Linden Labs didn’t think about either. However these things are issues that have a long-standing history in the world of Second Life.

The Magic Box is Dead, Long Live the Magic Box

It’s been with us for many years, and it’s been through a number of revisions … the most recent being v3.0.11. When it was first created by the authors of the SL Exchange virtual goods web site, it was a solution to the limitations built-in to the LSL scripting language that runs active objects in Second Life. My recent post on “Care and Feeding of the SL Marketplace Magic Box” goes into much more detail about how they can and should be used, so I won’t drag you through it again (although if you haven’t read it yet, it might make a worthwhile read anyway).

With the impending release of Direct Delivery, there’s a lot of talk going around that Magic Boxes will suddenly vanish from the Grid. Well, sorry folks, but ain’t so. The Magic Box will be around with us for a long time to come yet. Why you ask? Allow me to count the ways.

  1. Magic Boxes make great backup product storage lockers
  2. Moving everything to Direct Delivery instantly may not be a wise choice
  3. There are Third Party products that make use of the Magic Box
  4. They are extremely pretty and absolutely complete any decor

(Well, okay, that last one is a bit of a stretch. *grins*)

The (real) three points I make above are important though and depending on how you package and prepare your products, they may or may not make sense in your marketing strategy. The type of products you sell may also affect how you feel about keeping your Magic Boxes around as well. Hopefully reading through this post will give you some solid things to think about before making any changes.

How I Personally Feel on the Issue

Before people start claiming that I’m not only a Doom-N-Gloomer, but a verified Luddite, allow me to take some time and express my personal feelings on Direct Delivery.

The technical imperatives that gave rise to the Direct Delivery feature are solid and logical. The tortured path that a customer purchase takes as it wends its way from the Marketplace to the Magic Box is … well it’s ludicrous. Before Linden Lab purchased XStreetSL and then trashed it to release the SL Marketplace, it was the only possible way to make the delivery magic happen. Once LL released the SL Marketplace though, we learned they’d added an extra layer of digital insanity in the chain that makes it even more unreliable. (Rather than rewrite the Magic Box interface code, the developers left all of it in place and wrote a new controller layer that works the Magic Box communications code sort of like an alien taking over a human being’s brain. In fact, come to think of it, it’s JUST like that. *shivers*)

With Direct Delivery, the pathway from purchase to delivery is short, very short. Basically it involves just a simple database copy operation from the Marketplace’s “Escrow Inventory” into the customer’s Received Items data record. The Escrow Inventory is a separate and protected section of the Asset Database that is controlled by the Marketplace. When you send an item up to the Marketplace for listing and delivery, it is copied into the Escrow Inventory, thus when it comes time to deliver the purchased item, it comes from a known safe and reliable database record.

But it’s taken Linden Lab a long time to implement Direct Delivery. A very long time. A lot longer time than even a fully implemented development and quality assurance software development process should take, and we all know how downright undependable the SQA process is with Linden Lab. Any time I see a software project take this much time, my butt puckers because I just know there’s gonna be places in the code where the programmers didn’t have a clue what they were doing, so they just slapped in something ugly that “sorta works” .. and that’s never good.

So in summary, I like the idea behind Direct Delivery very much. I’m just very worried that it’s got some sections that are butt-ugly kludges that will take forever to repair should any bugs be found there. With luck, it will all come off without a hitch. But I ain’t counting my chickens just yet either.

Stale Products

Way long time ago, back in the days of the Freebie Roadmap, an issue kept coming up that has bothered most long-time merchants a lot … that being the issue of “Stale Products”. Basically a Stale Product is one that has been on the Marketplace (XStreetSL, SLExchange, etc. etc.) forever, is no longer supported because the Merchant has long since left Second Life, and basically pollutes the product offerings in the same category like a bag of discarded McDonald’s burgers sullies the parking lot at a fancy restaurant. For the record, I don’t like the presence of Stale Products on the Marketplace either. But how to recognize and remove them has been a topic of much debate for as long as the concept has existed.

Most people assumed that when products were migrated from XStreetSL over to the Marketplace, those Stale Products would somehow magically disappear because the Merchant selling them wasn’t around to complete the migration. Yet somehow most of them did make the migration. My theory is that they had such simple listings to begin with that they came through the automatic migration basically intact. Those of us that made use of BBCode, URL’s in the listing and other text enhancements … we had to spend hours sanitizing our listings and making them suitable for public consumption. But those danged old Stale Product listings were so sterile to begin with, they survived in great shape and are still making sales to this day.

The second assumption people have been making is that once the Magic Box disappeared from the Grid (for example when the Merchant vacated SL and their land reverted or was abandoned) then the products in that Magic Box would eventually be delisted as well. Sorry folks, that’s another “ain’t so”. Why? Because the Marketplace does not ever automatically check to see if the Magic Box is present and does not ever automatically check to see if a product is still available for delivery.

The only time it looks to see which Magic Box contains that product is when the Merchant presses that “Sync Marketplace with Magic Boxes” button on the Manage Product Listings page. Since that sync operation was completed early on during the migration, and was redone automatically for the entire Merchant population several times during the start-up process, the Marketplace still has a record of those stale products being in some Magic Box somewhere. When it accepts a purchase and (like an alien) manipulates the Magic Box communication code to deliver that product, it basically ignores the error return that says ‘That Magic Box doesn’t exist anymore”. It does that because sometimes a Sim may be offline, or the Sim needs rebooting, or some other temporary error may in normal operation cause the same error reply. Since the Marketplace doesn’t keep track of those Magic Boxes (all that grunt work is down in the old XStreetSL code, remember?) it never removes the database entry that says that product is in that Magic Box. Thus, those stale products stick around … forever!

But Won’t Direct Delivery Fix That?

Sadly it won’t … not for a long time anyway. As Linden Lab is painfully aware, it will be a long time before they can totally shut off Magic Box delivery. I’d guess it will take a year or more before they can legitimately shut it off completely. That means it will be at least another year after they turn on Direct Delivery before the last of the stale products contained in Magic Boxes can be removed. So we’ll have to suffer those stale products sticking around for at least that long.

But that’s not the end of the problem, not at all. The other side of this coin is … what about those Merchants that abandon ship AFTER Direct Delivery debuts? Picture a newbie Merchant, unsure if they want to sell or not, uploading a few products, playing at selling a week or two and then dropping off altogether. They’re not going to go through the hassle of deleting their product listings, especially not if they’re just abandoning the whole thing anyway. And since we don’t know yet how to delete products uploaded to the Direct Delivery Escrow Inventory, they damn sure aren’t going to go look that up just to clean up their mess either.

And what about Merchants that weren’t newbie “giving it a test go” sellers? What about those that for one reason or another abandon Second Life? Their products are widely known, sell fairly often … and have absolutely no support. There is no more Magic Box that might have evaporated with the demise of their land, all of their products are stored in the forever data vault of the Marketplace’s Escrow Inventory. They will live on forever. There is just no mechanism known or even considered to find them, remove them and stop them from being sold to unsuspecting customers. *double-face-palm*

Converting to Direct Delivery

Those of you who were around for the migration from XStreetSL to SL Marketplace remember well the intense pain we felt migrating our products. During that move, the most painful part for a lot of us was sanitizing our listings to remove BBCode. There was also the issue of product images, their size and the number of them used. For the Magic Box to Direct Delivery migration, we won’t have to do a lot of text editing to our listings, but we will have to touch each listing migrated anyway. As just a quick review, I’ll go through the process (approximately as the full details won’t be released until the day that DD goes live).

  1. Upload the Product Folder or Box into the Outbound Merchants folder in your Viewer’s Inventory list.
  2. Open the Product’s Listing for Editing
  3. Change the Associated Product from one contained in a Magic Box to the one just uploaded into the Direct Delivery Escrow Inventory
  4. Save the Product Listing
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat

This brief rundown skips a lot of the important details of course, but as a general overview it will suffice. (There’s a more complete although probably not 100% accurate article by Jeremy Linden here: Marketplace Direct Delivery migration guide)

There may also be a saving grace here as well. According to the migration guide (linked above) there is an automatic association mode that should handle most cases … maybe. (And this is where it’s a bit confusing.) According to the guide:

“If an uploaded item has the same name as an existing Magic Box listing, association is handled automatically and the existing listing will begin selling the item via Direct Delivery. ¬†Automatic association may fail if an existing listing’s associated item has already been manually changed, which may often occur as a result of product updates.”

What is confusing about this is the term “Magic Box listing”. There are no Magic Box listings on the Marketplace … anywhere. There is an Inventory List, and Product Listings have an associated object, but no Magic Box listings. I’m hoping what they mean with that sentence is something like this:

“If an uploaded item has the same name as the Associated Object in an existing Product Listing then the listing will be changed from Magic Box to Direct Delivery automatically.”

The last sentence in the previous quote also confuses me. How can you change a Product Listing’s associated object in between the time you upload the new item/folder to the Marketplace’s Escrow Inventory and it is checked for possible automatic association? Shouldn’t the automatic association happen immediately after the product is uploaded? *shrugs*

At any rate, as I said before, the migration guide now posted is probably not 100% accurate and we won’t have the final release of the documentation on Direct Delivery until the same day the feature is released. I don’t know about you, but I’m probably going to spend that first day just reading posts in the Merchant Forum .. and laughing.

Final Thoughts

Probably the biggest ripple, okay perhaps “Tsunami” would be a better term, that will occur on March 21st will be the level of mistakes and user frustration that occurs because people don’t understand the documentation, or the documentation doesn’t match behavior, or they’re not using the correct Viewer or … basically anything that has to do with needing support and help from the Linden Lab staff. When the Marketplace was debuted, answers from the staff were few and far between, so there were a lot of problems that arose just because of misinformation or missing information. I sincerely hope that the Lab has learned that lesson well and staffs up to handle the flood of questions that arise from releasing a complex product feature on the same day as they release the documentation.

Postscript

Does anyone know if the TPV’s (like Firestorm) will have full support for the Direct Delivery folders in time for its release? I ask because my ancient craptop laptop won’t run LL’s Viewer 3, and until support for DD is included in Firestorm … I’m screwed! LOL


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