Mutant Internet

I do realize that anytime someone mentions the term “Mutant” in regards Second Life, most folks immediately conjure up a mental image of some malformed and horribly beautiful avatar that makes your stomach roll and your face break out in an approving smile. But in this particular situation I’m using the term “Mutant Internet” as a way of indicating the future of the Internet … as in “it’s mutating and gaining new powers.” So are you even more confused? Well then read on and I’ll try my best to unconfuse you.

(BTW: The inspiration for this post came from a comment posted by Aeonix Aeon (AKA Will Burns, AKA Darian Knight) on my post “More Steam Cap’n“.)

The Seed That Grew Into A Blog

The central point to Aeonix’s comment was that the Second Life platform was the precursor to what Virtual Worlds would eventually be, in the same manner that AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve were the precursors to what the Internet is now. Essentially Second Life is the Model A Ford … and sometime soon (hopefully) we’ll be driving cars akin to the Chevy Volt.

As I let his comment and perspective percolate around in my brain, synthesizing what would eventually become this post, a fellow SL’er named Fleep Tuque posted on her blog an essay with essentially the same central point; that the Second Life platform is stuck in the past and we need to be chasing after the real future of Virtual Worlds (although she calls it The Metaverse) as rapidly as our little cursor fingers can take us.

Mutations in the Last Two Decades

To recap, when The Internet first started its rise to popularity, the technology needed to join the party and the technical expertise that was needed to actually derive benefit from it just wasn’t something that many had. Sure there were the early adopter Geeks and Propeller Heads, but they were a very small minority and trying to get them to explain things in humanly comprehensible language was not such an easy task.

The gap between what the average user needed and what they already had and understood was pretty daunting to most folks. Thus such companies as AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve pushed their way onto the scene. Their major benefit was that they provided a simple and easily mastered portal through which the average computer user could rapidly utilize such standards as Email, Instant Messaging and Web Search. Their drawback was that they were a very tightly controlled and consequently very limited point of access as well. As long as you stayed completely within their “Walled Gardens”, you were assured of adequate service and a satisfying experience. However if you wanted to go beyond the services and features they offered, you faced either severe challenges or out-and-out roadblocks.

In the past two decades, those companies have .. for the most part .. become footnotes in the History of the Internet. While AOL is still around, their market share has dropped significantly and their offerings are mere adjuncts to the core Internet environment. For whatever reason, AOL and the others held fast to a corporate mindset that was firmly based on their proprietary platform and attendant restrictions. While they stood steadfast, defending against all logic their predictions for the future, the rest of the Internet mutated around them .. leaving them behind and making them into the butt of many “such idiots” type jokes.

The AOL Days of The Metaverse

In the early days of Second Life, Linden Lab offered essentially the same type of “simplified on-ramp” to a Virtual World as AOL offered to the Internet. Their Region Servers, the viewer needed to access them, the entire system was carefully restricted and controlled. It’s important to note though that their reason for limiting these things was not some mistaken attempt to “keep it all”, but was in fact designed carefully from a technical perspective .. the intent being to make it possible for as many as possible to come on in and enjoy the experience. When Second Life came onto the scene, not that many people and not that many computers could really handle the full-blown requirements, so Linden Lab cut here and tucked there to make sure they could reach a wider audience without making smoke roll out the sides of the user’s machine. (Of course, that’s why AOL and the others did what they did too.)

But in exactly the same path toward oblivion as the early Internet Portals, Linden Lab has mutated in the wrong direction. Instead of focusing on enhancing the platform and staying in the forefront as the trend-setter for Virtual Worlds, Linden Lab has reshaped their company and their product to maximize their profit margin at the expense of their customers and their future. Features that would increase the user enjoyment or more tightly weld them into joining the parade have been roundly ignored or even dismissed by the Lab. Those times when they “screwed up” and created something that many people embraced with fervor (for example the OpenSpace fiasco), they have very quickly reversed course, removed the option completely, and threw the blame for the change on the customers themselves. Such events and decisions proved to everyone watching that Linden Lab had no interest in growing and maintaining a vibrant and enthusiastic customer base, instead their focus was on retaining control of their bottom line and eliminating anything that might tend to let that control slip into the hands of the people paying the bills.

As any competent student of today’s Consumer-Driven market will happily point out, when a company deludes itself into believing they alone control the product and its path toward the future, they ignore the simple fact that they exist at the pleasure of their customers. When those customers find another alternative, another option that is in some way preferable to the company’s offering, said offering will soon become a casualty in the marketplace. In the case of AOL and the others, because they ignored (for the most part) their customer’s demands to open things up and provide more flexible and powerful access options, their products and platforms soon plummeted from sight. Only AOL tried, albeit half-heartedly, to open the doors a bit and allow their customers more flexibility. But their reactions were too little and too late, so that by the time they actually got serious about releasing their strangle-hold, the customer base had already flown the coop.

What “Mutant” Means To Me

When I think of the term “Mutant”, the image I conjure up is the X-Men from the Marvel Comics family. The central concept behind that fictional series is that the protagonist X-Men (and even their antagonistic mutant enemies) are the future of the human species. Each member of the X-Men has some unique power or ability that makes them different and, in many respects, better than the average human meat-sack. Of course the meat-sacks find the idea of beings that are not only different but potentially better a very threatening prospect. Predictably such “threats” must be eliminated … thus resulting in the core tension that has made the series so popular with today’s “disaffected minority”. (Which we all know is actually the “disaffected majority”, but we let the real minority believe they’re in the lead .. mainly because they’re less trouble that way.)

In that vein, the competing OpenSim and OS Grid Virtual Worlds are the Mutants that threaten the future viability of the “meat sack” Second Life. Just as in the X-Men story line, rather than embrace and integrate the wonderful powers and abilities of these Mutant Metaverses, Linden Lab has seen fit to mostly ignore them, periodically taking potshots at them in the quiet hope they will somehow turn up lame or crippled. (The removal of the multiple grid login capability from the “official” SL Viewer and the attendant enforced compliance to that same limitation of the TPVs is just the latest shot across the bow from the Lab.) However this type of disdain and refusal to cooperate is the same behavior that doomed the original Internet portal providers. Yet here we are, watching a company that has the names on the masthead and the integrated experience with the past that they should know better … acting and taking steps that clearly indicate they don’t “get it” at all.

And It’s All YOUR Fault!

While writing this post, another SL’er that I follow routinely … Botgirl Questi … posted on her blog about Fleep’s post. In her opinion, those of us that have silently and stubbornly “gone along to get along” with Linden Lab are just as culpable, if not more so, as the Lab. I’m afraid it just doesn’t ring right with me. Based on the comments to her post, I’m in the minority on that opinion too.

Instead I chalk up the fact that we are still here (in Second Life) more to our unwavering hope that the impossible will happen and the Lab will wake up in time … and less to the sentiment that we let it happen just to keep from rocking the boat. I tend to fancy myself as a rather vociferous boat rocker since the day I first joined the SL Forums and started engaging in activism to rally the SL Residents to rebel against LL’s brain-damaged edicts. After all, I was the one that made and distributed the “Set My Freebies Free” spinning prim head-gear … AND wore it to Torley’s Office Hour … after holding a public protest in one of the Linden owned Sims. (That protest was in response to the infamous Freebie Roadmap that would have resulted in every Freebie on XStreet SL being charged a weekly L$95 fee.)

One of the central points in Botgirl’s post is her assertion that today’s most active “Consumers” are shying away from complex and overburdened environments (such as the visually rich and way-too-complex UI of Second Life) and instead adopting the “quick hit” paradigm of such applications as Twitter and texting on a smartphone. But this is where I diverge from Botgirl … the complexity of the application and its UI.

There is actually nothing in the Virtual World concept that demands a complex or confusing set of controls. If that were the case then each and every one of us would spend more time just trying to walk to the kitchen than there are hours in a day. You see, we all “navigate” the real world with so little effort and conscious thought that by the time we’re in our early teens, it’s an automatic habit. Thus I strongly believe that navigating and living in a Virtual World can be just as seamless and automatic. All it requires is someone with some decent smarts and a good handle on the human beast to disconnect the UI from the application .. and glue on a new UI that is controlled with the same mental exertion as we move around in the non-Virtual World. (While there is some interesting stuff going on with the Microsoft Kinex, I’m putting my money on the Direct-to-Brain interfaces now being researched for artificial prosthetics and enabling appliances for physically challenged people.)

GACK! It’s a MUTANT!

And well it should be. In light of the fact that mutating and adapting to the future is a long-term process that demands not only a dedicated community but the vitality and imagination of 100’s or 1000’s of agile brains, perhaps Linden Lab’s choice to jump off the future bandwagon and plant their stakes using old technology is the wisest decision they could make. After all, they lost the magic and the vision that let them create Second Life in the first place. Despite the fact that they are raking in a very healthy profit and could well afford to reinvest a good portion of that into growing their technology into the future, the reality of their situation is that they need to repay their investors … and you can damn sure bet the investors would not let them get away with NOT repaying them .. and NOW! So not being able to actually invest in their own long-term viability, being forced to instead cut off their own legs so they could repay the investors .. freezing their growth was really their only choice.

Which of course leaves those of us interested in the long-term lifespan of Virtual Worlds with only one set of choices … other Virtual Worlds. The current “Darling” out there is an application called “Unity” … primarily because it can be run in a web browser. We’re all well aware that in order to attract any buzz in the press, an offering as revolutionary as a new Virtual World must “run in a browser” … because that’s the future that all the pundits have ordained. (If it won’t run on iPad .. iDunCare!)

But Unity has a giant handicap that, in my opinion anyway, dooms it to yet another genetic backwater and disqualifies it from being the mutant future that survives. First of all it is a completely closed environment. It is being developed by a company with a comparatively tiny set of minds driving its innovation. Furthermore the creation of content for use in Unity requires the use of tools that are completely inaccessible to the run-of-the-mill inhabitant. This is a paradigm roughly equivalent to an even earlier stage in the gestation of computers … the days of Punch Cards and Lab Coat wearing Computer Priests.

That way of life was the only game in town until such visionaries as the Two Steve’s at Apple and the trailblazers at IBM commercialized the Personal Computer. The fact that Unity has taken their technology all the way back to the early bearskins and stone knives days of old completely negates the pizzazz and future of their product. In essence they’ve locked the doors in the effort to control their future, but in the same stroke killed off all hopes of growing beyond the limited scope of their developer’s creativity.

Bottom Line? Unity is a mutation doomed to die. (Blue Mars anyone?)

Successful Mutations

For my money the only options that have any future in the gene pool of Virtual Worlds are still the Open Source offerings such as OpenSim. While there have been branches off the OpenSim family tree, those mutations are already showing the fallacy in locking the doors to community participation. Many of them are either announcing the end of their proprietary offerings … or will most likely be doing so very soon. Again these are mutations with a limited lifespan directly due to their desire to lock up their environment, thus cutting off the nutritional creativity that feeds their growth.

Is Open Source Really the Future?

That’s a viable question to ask. It’s well known that monetizing an Open Source product is devilishly difficult. There are some companies that have successfully taken Open Source products and turned them into proprietary offerings .. and made a profit at it. But those companies have done things that helped ensure their success. They have carefully protected their involvement in the Open Source development of the product that they “captured”, thus ensuring they would continue to reap the benefits of the nutritional creativity. They also chose the right time and gestational maturity to capture the product.

In the case of Virtual Worlds, that maturity is still a long ways off. There are a lot of very important advancements which will have to be put into practice before Virtual Worlds will really be ready to capture and monetize. (Chopping off and revolutionizing the User Interface for example.) Any company that attempts to lock down a specific Virtual World, whether wholly created in-house or adapted from an existing Open Source offering, would IMHO be jumping the gun. There just isn’t enough “There” there … yet. Virtual Worlds have a lot of growth to make yet, they need to spread in market penetration and they need to get really clear exactly what they’re supposed to provide. Until then … until those basic requirements are met … attempting to grab a splice of the existing gene bank and grow a successful thriving body will just be an exercise in wasting money and time. And I strongly believe the only way to make those things happen, to properly mature and improve the core gene set of Virtual Worlds is through the Open Source community.

Mutations Are NOT Standalone

The one other point I want to drive home is the fact that mutations happen as a direct result of input from the surrounding environment. No mutation is successful, and some would argue will not even happen, unless there is sufficient impetus applied from outside the body. AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve were quite happily successful … until the user community demanded more. Then and only then was there the necessity for them to mutate to survive. Sadly they did not.

In the case of Second Life, that outside pressure to adapt and mutate has been overwhelming and plainly obvious. Of course, just like the Internet Portals of yesteryear, Linden Lab has steadfastly ignored that pressure and stayed their course. It’s no surprise that in my opinion their intentional ignorance of that environmental pressure is what will ultimately spell their demise. But that’s of no consequence to those of us that will begin searching out, contributing to and depending on the Open Source mutations that are available now. By the time the doors are eventually shuttered at Second Life, it will be just as important to us as the day Prodigy turned off their servers. (At least, I think they turned them off. I wasn’t really paying attention. Sowwy!)

Final Thoughts

This post, in fact a lot of what I’ve done and come to believe and what I look forward to in the future has come from the minds, opinions and imaginations of others. I don’t stand alone, and I’m content in the belief that none of us do. In order to make sure we all benefit from the future that Virtual Worlds can create, we all need to continue to share, listen and contribute to the community. It is that diversity that ensures the overall health of the body.

And that’s a sentiment that applies to more than just Virtual Worlds.


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