Second Life Faces Open Source
Second Life vendor Linden Lab has been dabbling in open source for quite a while: their client code is available, and they've persistently talked about (though not actually carried through on) making the server open source as well. But now the company is facing a potential upheaval to its business model, as alternative compatible virtual worlds are maturing. Can they cope with the challenge?
The root of the change that Linden Lab is facing is the open-source OpenSimulator project. Working with the protocols derived from the official Second Life client, and a knowledge of how Second Life works, these people have implemented their own compatible server code: you can use a Second Life client to log on to an OpenSim server. Beyond that, anyone can run their own server.
What makes this significant right now is that IBM and Linden Lab have demonstrated interoperability between the "official grid" and an OpenSimulator server, moving an avatar (virtual world user) from one to the other. From there, it is only a short conceptual step - and not a much longer coding one - to moving users and virtual goods between more than one virtual world. Since much of Linden Lab's financial model to date has been based on maintaining a monopoly of servers (in the form of virtual land sales), this has the potential to kick the bottom out of their company.
Linden Lab doesn't plan to give up so easily, though. In an interview with Reuters, they offered a sketchy outline of long-term plans to remain an important force in the coming "multiverse." Their basic plan seems to be to move into the infrastructure business, providing services like search, exchange markets, and the equivalent of DNS services for multiple virtual worlds.
It's a path that's fraught with difficulty - the barrier to entry for others who wish to offer similar services is low, and big players like Google and Sun are also sniffing around the virtual world frontier. But at a time when Second Life's first-mover advantage is poised to evaporate, they seem to have very little choice.