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Second Life Faces Otherworldly Competition

A slew of companies, ranging in size from tiny startups to Google, are springing up virtual worlds of their own to challenge Second Life's dominance of the small but growing market.

This article is a followup to Second Life Tries For A Second Act.

As Second Life matures, competitors emerge, ranging from startups to Google.

Most Second Life competitors run in Web browsers, unlike Second Life, which requires users to install and run a proprietary client. Google launched Lively, a browser-based virtual world platform, in July. Lively runs in a browser, but requires users to install proprietary software to run it. The Electric Sheep Company, which got its start providing corporate services in Second Life, launched its own Flash-based virtual world, WebFlock, in July. The Vivaty virtual world, which started on Facebook and AOL Instant Messenger, is expanding to become embeddable by users on blogs and other Web pages. And Ogoglio is an open source browser-based virtual worlds project, designed to allow users to build their own spaces which can be linked up to form a virtual city for work.




Second Life requires users to install and run a proprietary client. Users create avatars like this one to represent themselves inworld.
(click for image gallery)

Meanwhile, longstanding competitors like There.com and Fortera continue doing business. For example, when the U.K. and U.S. armies were looking to conduct a joint training experiment in a virtual world, they chose Fortera Olive, rather than Second Life, for the platform. And Habbo, a browser-based virtual world primarily catering to teen chat, dwarfs Second Life in size, with 106 million accounts created since the service started eight years ago, and 9.5 million unique visitors per month.

Another potential competitor is OpenSim, an open source Second Life competitor built by reverse-engineering Second Life's published APIs and portions of SL code that Linden Lab has open source. OpenSim is now in alpha testing.

The competition will make things tough for Linden Lab, said Christian Renaud, head of the analyst firm Technology Intelligence Group, which advises enterprises on emerging technology. "It's hard enough to fight in one market against entrenched competition -- especially against companies that are well-heeled, like Google -- much less in three or four directions," Renaud said. "They're already struggling with what they've been doing."

Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon said he doesn't see browser-based virtual worlds as a threat. "This is a huge and developing space," he said. "In some ways, those services can be gateways to Second Life," Kingdon said. "Whenever Google enters a market, it's an incredible validation for the market that Google is interested in."

Indeed, Linden Lab is pursuing a strategy of working with virtual worlds competitors to try to expand the market, on the theory that the company is better off with a piece of a big pie than it is with nearly all of a small pie. Linden Lab is working on interoperability with other virtual worlds, particularly OpenSim, in partnership with IBM, with the goal of allowing users to be able to transfer their avatars and belongings between them.

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