Officially, Second Life has been out of beta for four years.
But that's just the official story, put forward by Linden Lab, the developers and operators of Second Life. In reality, Second Life still has all the characteristics of beta software. It's prone to crashes and mysterious, persistent bugs. The client software is updated a couple of times each month.
The service has been subject to particularly frequent outages for the past several weeks. For example, Second Life was down more often than it was up on August 7-8, which Linden Lab blamed on networking problems. Prior to that, the service was subject to frequent outages and bugs the weekend of July 28-29, when outages marred the Relay for Life, a charity event for cancer research that spanned the entire grid.
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InformationWeek and our sister publication, Dr. Dobb's Journal, host regular discussion groups in Second Life.
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Moreover, Second Life is still a niche activity. The virtual world's home page keeps a prominent, running tally of the number of people who've signed up for the service, known as "residents." Second Life boasted 8.7 million residents on August 9, 2007. But those are just the number of accounts created in the four-year history of the service -- many of those people tried the service for a few minutes, decided it wasn't for them, and never came back. Some 985,000 people logged in to Second Life in the 30 days preceding August 9. Linden Lab says 495,000 "active users" 114 million people visited MySpace in June -- a figure which makes Second Life usage look like an insignificant speck.
Technology limitations are another indication that Second Life isn't quite finished yet. For example, limitations on the Second Life servers prevent more than about 70 people from attending most events (although there are workarounds that can increase attendance to a couple of hundred people).
And there are technology limitations on the clients, too. Second Life requires a current computer; users with PCs more than two years old will be unable to access it. It requires that users download and install client software, which many users are reluctant to do. The user interface is confusing. It is buggier than a mattress in a two-dollar hotel -- anytime you log in, there's only a 50-50 chance that things will work right.
All of that limits Second Life's attractiveness to most users. My colleague John Jainschigg, who heads up the Second Life effort at Dr. Dobb's Journal, says that using Second Life is a lot like using the Web in 1993-94: Buggy, slow, and lacking in features. But we could all see the potential.
Likewise, in 14 or so years, we'll all sit back, share a pint, and reminisce about how clumsy and awkward Second Life was back in the faraway year of 2007. (We'll share that pint in a virtual pub, of course.)
"Virtual worlds are now the worst they'll ever be," Campfire’s Monello said. "The fact that so many people are willing to engage with them, despite the problems, demonstrates how powerful they are."
Second Life saw a lot of hype in 2006, and now it's getting the backlash. The truth is somewhere in the middle: It's still got a long way to go before it becomes mainstream, but the service can provide a great deal of value for real-life businesses by giving them an opportunity to engage as equals with customers, suppliers, and business partners.
Companies including Cisco, Nissan, Starwood, and Showtime, have successfully used Second Life for marketing and communications, by using the virtual world as a tool for engaging with residents.
Give it a try. Your Second Life is waiting for you.