Gartner: Virtual worlds pose business risks

Virtual worlds such as Second Life can be useful to businesses if they evaluate the risks involved, according to a research note from Gartner published on this week.

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Virtual worlds such as Second Life can be useful to businesses if they evaluate the risks involved, according to a research note from Gartner published on this week.

Gartner analyst Steve Prentice, who recently published an in-depth study on virtual worlds, said virtual worlds can pose problems to security and corporate image, but shouldn't be automatically written off as time-wasting games.

Large companies are beginning to take virtual worlds seriously, with enterprises such as Intel, IBM and Sun setting up virtual offices in Second Life, and using it to hold press conferences and even internal meetings.

Dell uses Second Life to allow customers to build custom PCs and then order the real thing, while US retailer Best Buy uses its Second Life facility to give customers access to troubleshooting experts, and Cisco hosts virtual user-group meetings at its Second Life HQ.

Prentice agreed that companies can get real communications and productivity benefits out of virtual environments, and said companies should keep an open mind when evaluating whether they kill productivity. Such programs can drain staff time during the initial learning curve but there may be benefits further down the line, Prentice said.

Nevertheless, there are serious risks associated with IT security, access management, confidentiality, and corporate reputation, he said.

IT security Like any internet-connected application, virtual worlds can open up risks of unverified applications making their way onto the network and allowing unwanted code through the firewall, Prentice said.

There's no evidence that virtual worlds pose any more such risk than comparable client applications, but Prentice pointed out that at the moment they're on the receiving end of frequent updates, which can make them difficult to control.

Access management Virtual environments can be useful for internal collaboration, but open applications such as Second Life are probably inappropriate for this, for the simple reason that it's difficult or impossible to verify whether the avatar showing up for the meeting is actually the person it claims to be, Prentice said.

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