Last week I chatted to the founder of Second Life, Philip Rosedale. He was telling me how happy he was that he'd found a new CEO to take over the day-to-day running of Linden Lab. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? Except that in this case, I believe him.
For Rosedale is without doubt one of the most intellectual entrepreneurs that I've ever met. When I interviewed him a couple of years ago, he explained that the ideas behind Second Life had come not only from obvious places like Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, but also obscure and deep books like Hernando de Soto's The Mystery of Capital (with a bit of Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities thrown in for good measure.)
So the fact that adult supervision has been brought in to run Linden Lab means that Rosedale, although nominally now just Chairman of the company, actually gets much more time to do what he does best: think about and tinker with his virtual creation.
One big project he's involved in is the open sourcing of the server side of Second Life's code. The client side was opened up a while back as part of a larger plan to throw everything open – what the company dubbed “embracing the inevitable”. The idea here is that if some kind of standard for interoperable virtual worlds is going to emerge, recent history teaches us it's got to be open.
For the client, that's easy enough, but on the server side, there are some heavy problems. Rosedale mentioned two in particular: how do you handle inventory – transporting virtual objects between compatible servers – and currency? The latter issue, which is partly about stopping people from simply creating endless supplies of virtual money as they move around virtual worlds, is critical if virtual economies are going to thrive.
Although I had appreciated that these were challenges, I was still surprised to learn of the time-scales they implied: Rosedale spoke of server code being released “over the next few years”. Happily, there's already another open source server project, OpenSim, for people to play with meanwhile. The bad news about OpenSim is that it uses .NET/Mono, which involves technology that Microsoft claims to have patented (not in Europe, of course). Worse, Second Life is also moving in Mono's general direction:
We’re very pleased to announce the beta testing of Mono in Second Life. Mono is a technology which will increase the speed of scripts running in Second Life. The goal is that everyone will experience reduced lag and improved stability and that it will be possible to script complex behaviours that were not previously feasible in Second Life.
Rosedale seemed not too aware of the potential dangers of tainting his project with Microsoft's technology, although he did say that other languages like Java, could also be adopted alongside it, so at least the use of Mono is not irrevocable if Microsoft starts to get silly.
Another interesting project he is working on is the creation of “private regions” within Second Life. These are secure virtual words that are not on the main grid, but which can access it through teleports. IBM has been at the forefront of this work to produce what is effectively an intranet-based virtual world that is nonetheless compatible with the main Second Life system.
Alongside these new areas, Rosedale was optimistic that the mainstream use of virtual worlds would broaden greatly. One reason is that he sees the metaphor of place as richer than the simple text-links that lie behind the Web.
He also thought that virtual worlds were insensitive to language in a way that the Web wasn't – he gave the example of looking for a train station Web site in China by finding the virtual station in a virtual world first. I'm not totally convinced by this navigational use, but do agree that virtual worlds have the unique benefit of making the social aspect of online activity manifest. That's clearly important for sites like Facebook, say, and yet it's strangely absent currently, with no real sense of others being “there” with you.
All-in-all, it was good once more to plug into Rosedale's boyish enthusiasm and undying optimism for his digital creation. He may no longer be the CEO of Linden, but it's clear he's still very much Second Life's guiding spirit.