The cat is out of the bag! Although, with the amount of uncertainty, supposition and speculation going around, it’s very much a Schrödinger’s cat… neither one thing or another until Linden Lab decide they’re going to tell us exactly what it is they’ve been working on for the past few years.
One thing is clear, the pundits may be calling the new kid on the block Second Life 2, but that’s something the Lab are not really going to want to encourage – Ebbe has said that the new virtual venture may be in “in the spirit of Second Life”, (we don’t even know if it’ll be a virtual world in the sense we’re used to yet), but is going to far exceed the capabilities and scope of sl, and possibly our expectations too. Whilst we’ve all been mistakenly watching what Philip Rosedale & co have been cooking up over at High Fidelity and speculating there might eventually some sort of hybrid mishmash of the two worlds, (Second Fidelity?), LL have been quietly working in the background on their own alternative to both, although we only have the sketchiest details so far, and i don’t imagine we’ll get to see much more of the bigger picture for quite some time – it’s quite likely that HiFi will already be fully up and running by the time the Lab feels confident enough to remove the wraps on their shiny new product.
Why do i think it’ll be sometime before we’re told much more? Partly because of the way that the news was broken – no formal announcements, no press releases and no fanfare, instead Ebbe chose to leak the news to developers at the regular Third Party Dev’s meeting. It’s a canny, and altogether rather clever way, to stimulate interest and generate some momentum in the sl community, without actually nailing the LL colours to the mast and committing to a public announcement that might raise unreasonable expectations within the wider gaming and commercial communities. And that’s exactly what is happening – i’ve personally tried to avoid most of the speculation and ‘wish listing’ that’s currently going on in the forums and all the usual places that you’d expect the debates to be aired – the signal to noise ratio, as always, is going to be pretty skewed – however, if the Lindens have their heads screwed on and can wade through the invective and nonsense, they’re going to be able to build a pretty clear picture of the general feeling about their announcement, as well as the hopes, fears, wants and concerns of the current – and potentially – future user base. All this, without having to go out on a limb and make public announcements that they may regret in the future.
What is also clear is that this new, all-singing, all-dancing development is where the Lab firmly believe their future lies – nobody throws a major part of their capability into developing a whole new product unless they intend it to form a significant segment of the business. That doesn’t mean sl is doomed – something i’ll come to in a moment – but knowing that only Oz Linden and a ‘small’ dedicated team are now committed to sl, whilst the rest of the company labours on the future release, is a strong indication of the direction that the Lab is going. The Labbies are obviously confident enough that they are on to a winner and that they’re now at a stage when that confidence can be reflected by telling us there’s something new in the pipeline – a lot of preparatory work has already gone into this, during which we remained blissfully unaware, (which in itself is pretty remarkable), but now it’s time to move up a gear and come out of the closet… something that just wouldn’t have happened if the Lab didn’t think there was a very good chance of success. Bear in mind that Ebbe is not the sort to let unproductive projects eat away at resources – look at what he did with Dio, Versu and Creatorverse!
What we don’t have at the moment, and i imagine it’ll be some time before we do have them, is answers to the two most pressing questions: 1) What exactly is the new product, and 2) What will happen to sl?
We can certainly speculate about the first question, although without inside information, we’re not really going to get very far. My own guess is that we’ll be getting something based on a voxel engine, optimised for Oculus Rift, and viewer features better than SLGo. As for backward-compatibility with sl, Ebbe hasn’t ruled it out, but it’s certainly not high on the list of priorities at present and if i was a betting person, i’d have to say that most of us – if we made the move – would have to say a tearful goodbye to a good chunk of our inventories. It’s not the first time i’ve maintained that one of Second Life’s greatest features is the ease with which anyone – plebs like me included – can create content… and one of its greatest weaknesses is the ease with which anyone can create content. SL is slow, buggy, laggy and often appears broken in large part thanks to the disproportionate, uneconomical and resource-hungry creations that we fill it with. Import that lot into a new platform and you’ve already got a sub-optimal system. Much as Ebbe insists that the new platform will absolutely be rooted in the sl ethos of user-created content, i think that’s going to be a tricky maneouvre to accomplish.
Whether the bar will be set artificially high to force content creators to meet sufficiently stringent standards or whether the tools provided to us will result in more professional results is certainly not clear at the moment, but my gut feeling is that workflow and process for content creation will change dramatically, and so too might its accessibility – a worry that some of the Third Party Devs have expressed. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing, but what will ultimately matter is: what is a good thing for the new platform?
It’s because of this, amongst other very good reasons, that i think the project will stay closed-source – possibly permanently – although i wouldn’t be surprised to see third party plugins, additional modules and APIs being encouraged somewhere along the line. If the Lab want to ensure a consistent, thorough and high quality approach to their product, it makes sense to keep things in-house and tightly regulated, certainly in the early stages and with regards to core functionality perhaps for the life of the product.
There will be a lot of talk in the blogosphere about what people feel is important – i bet second names and other minor considerations will be high on the list – but i can’t help feeling that the new product will be a complete game-changer… we may have to get used to a fundamentally different concept and mindset altogether.
Now, to the second question: What will happen to sl?
Very little, i imagine – Ebbe has intimated that sl will go on pretty much as long as there are people who will use it. i don’t think for one minute that we’ll see development of sl stop in the near future, it may be that once the new platform is up and running we might even see a relaxation of the rules for good old sl, giving TPVs free reign to see what they can do with the old girl, resulting in a resurgence of innovation and a virtual renaissance for the old virtual world.
Eventually though, it would be misguided to think that with a better, brighter and more attractive alternative, sl development and even support will go on forever. At some point it simply won’t make good business sense to keep it running, or to maintain old, decrepit code and equipment – it won’t happen for a good long while, but eventually a point must come when – like Viewer 1.0 and Windows 3.1, it’ll be time to call a halt – LL will either shut down the servers, or sell sl off to the hardened geeks who’ll want to keep it running in perpetuity. That’s a long way off – and all being well, the majority of us will have crossed over by then anyway.
These are interesting times… could we really be on the verge of entering into the realms of Snowcrash and Ready Player 1? Who knows, but one thing’s for sure: from this point on, anything could happen!
Stars when you shine you know how I feel
Scent of the pine you know how I feel
Yeah freedom is mine
And you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me
Nina Simone – Feeling Good