The Virtual Whirl: Linden Lab goes back to basics

Updated ·7 min read

Yesterday, Linden Lab's interim CEO Philip Rosedale and CFO/COO Bob Komin did a talk and Q&A session in Second Life focused on where things were at, and where things were going. This week, on The Virtual Whirl, we're going to take a look at that session and see if some sense can't be made of it all.

The video of the session is available on, and Grace McDunnough has provided just the audio in MP3 format. Being a Second Life voice session, it sounds like a somewhat tinny and distorted version of AM talk-radio, where even the hosts are calling in from a payphone... in a giant bathtub.

The first 30 minutes or so are given over to a presentation, and the second 30 minutes to answering the very few questions that there were time for.

The vision

"Fast. Easy. Fun" – it sounds like something you'd find written above a phone number on the wall of a public restroom, but it's the new Second Life vision statement that Rosedale says that Linden Lab, as a company, has spent the last 30 days working on.

The words remind me of the old designer's adage: "Fast. Good. Cheap. Pick any two."

I suspect we'll be seeing a number of situations where two of the three are achievable, but all three together are problematic. The second slogan for the day is "back to basics."

The problem with fun

"Fun" is a curious one to find in the vision adjective salad. Second Life traditionally isn't fun in and of itself – no more than a public park, an auditorium, or many varieties of RenFaire. It's a place you go where you can have fun; where you can initiate a variety of activities that you enjoy in a self-directed way.

Most Second Life users make their own fun (quite literally, by creating content, games and activities to suit themselves), and the amount of fun you have is proportional to what you put in; if, indeed, fun is actually your goal.

The map is not the territory, however. The three words – as words – shouldn't be mistaken for the actual guiding principles that they represent. "Fun", it appears now replaces "delight" as a development litmus test. The word "delight" is what steered Second Life search onto the rocks.

"Fun" is perhaps the most ill-defined word of the set, and the one which is likely to precipitate the greatest trouble and most stumbles.

The plan

It isn't much of a roadmap, but there's a bit of a roadmap that's emerged from the session.

Several new features are scheduled to be upcoming, texture-delivery via HTTP – outstanding now for... well, longer than I can conveniently recall – is finally going to be delivered "in the next week or so."

The introduction of mesh objects also appear to be on the imminent list, but there's still no real timeline for it. Beyond that, though, the next 6-9 months are slated to be a grindfest on reducing and/or mitigating crashes and lag in the Viewer 2.1 codebase and simulator code. That takes us well into 2011.

Linden Lab is committing to monitoring crash-rates on a week-to-week basis and plans to suspend other projects in order to bring crash-rates back down should they rise again subsequently.

Community feedback in iterations

Rosedale says that the company has "lost the lead", but it isn't clear who or what it might have been lost to, though it is implied that it is a matter of a lead in technology. It's critical, Rosedale says, to vastly shorten release-cycles and incorporate community-feedback, a process which he indicates will start next year, after the attack on lag and crashes.

How long, exactly, that will take to kick in is a good question, as Rosedale says that code and systems will require profound and fundamental changes in order to allow this sort of rapid, feedback-based, iterative development to take place.

"Our plans – and in the case of the viewer – our source code, will always be visible to you as we are working on the product."

Viewer 2 is to remain the core of Linden Lab's technology offering. As an accretive bundle of rather disparate technologies, various things that the Lab clearly wants to keep (particularly in the way of features) are bound up with more problematic things (like the user-interface in its current form). This, then, precludes returning to the extremely stable 1.23 series of viewers.

"I know many people are really frustrated with the Viewer 2 and I certainly acknowledge and apologize for that frustration... In its 2.0 release... we seem to have created a product that doesn't [completely] satisfy the needs of any group of users right now... We're in a place that's tough."

Rosedale promises that Linden Lab will make that codebase work for everyone – old users, new users, explorers, creators, and consumers – and that it will crash less, perform better than any product Linden Lab has ever produced.

For this (presumably in 2011, because otherwise it would conflict with Rosedale's 2-3 quarter commitment to drop everything and fight crashes and lag) Linden Lab will be establishing better bi-directional communications with users in order to allow the community to specify everything that is needed for Viewer 2.

Although, if you ask me, the two conflicting priorities are probably going to wind up tangled together concurrently rather than taking place end-to-end, probably to the detriment of both.

The key to Second Life

Rosedale says that Second Life's key driver is the success of the content-creators. "[I]t's the one thing. It's beyond simply building and delivering the software and technology. It is what we need... for you to build the world and create the content."

That's a really difficult thing to measure, and here, Rosedale trots out the tired and discredited user-to-user transactions as a measure for the success of content-creators. If that's so, then the last couple quarters have been among the most successful ever for content-creators – which is clearly not the case by all other reports.

User-to-user transactions, Rosedale says, will be the first-place to look to measure the success of changes and features. Having watched the Second Life economy and metrics for half a decade now, that notion makes me cringe.

New users

In the coming weeks, Linden Lab is planning to change registration, and possibly completely do away with the welcome/tutorial areas, instead bringing people directly to the locations, events, and content that have drawn them into registering for Second Life. Rosedale says that the testing that has been done seems to show good results for this sort of approach, and the Lab is going to move on it forthwith.

It's something I've got some misgivings about – having new users spending their first few minutes trying to work out movement and communications at a crowded event doesn't seem like a positive thing – but for now I'll take it on faith that the Lab's done some rigorous, scientific testing and that they've gotten positive results from it.

Stopped projects

As indicated by former CEO, Mark Kingdon, in the wake of the restructuring some projects are to be delayed, and some projects are to be cut. At present, the Lab isn't yet ready to divulge a list of the projects that have been axed or delayed, according to a spokesperson, though more details may emerge in coming weeks.

Rosedale says that Second Life Enterprise (the behind-the-firewall-Second-Life-in-a-box product) is suspended indefinitely (which comes as not much surprise as the staff involved with that were seemingly laid off about a year ago) as it doesn't represent a core priority to a majority of users.

All in all, my feelings about the session are somewhat mixed, though not negative. More it's a cautious

optimism, but cautious to the point of timidity, perhaps. It's hope equipped with kevlar body-armour and a riot-shield.