How might it work? Well, say you want to check out potential sites for a conference you're planning in Chicago. You'd use the street view feature of Google Maps to investigate actual meeting locations, restaurants, night clubs, and hotels. You also would be able to look inside the facilities at various hotels. Once the search for a location is narrowed, meeting planners could do virtual, narrated walk-throughs of facilities with salespeople who could field questions -- all through My World. Google's superb personalization tools also could play a role, helping to tailor the experience to information that members have submitted about themselves. Have a preference for Italian restaurants when traveling? The service could zero in on several fine places for pasta and red wine.
Such obvious applications alone should give Google's My World (not to be confused with ebay's similarly named venture) a major leg up over the almost pure-fantasy qualities of Second Life.
In my admittedly limited time in Second Life, I found the heavyweight client, clumsy avatar movement controls, and other features to carry a very steep learning curve. I would expect any offering from Google to offer more streamlined, Google-esque usability. Google could do to virtual worlds what it did in the search space, ultimately surpassing the first movers with superior technology and, now, resources. No doubt Second Life will maintain a strong following and always be respected as one of the earliest entrants in this space, but it would be easy to see Google's My World emerging as more of a business-focused virtual world.
There's a strong analysis on the future of virtual worlds by our internal expert, Mitch Wagner (who's on vacation this week, otherwise I'm sure he would have weighed in). I won't claim Mitch agrees with my thinking, but since he's not here to respond I'll take the liberty of lifting a couple points from his blog entry that I interpret as Google having a stronger future in virtual worlds than Second Life does:
Second Life might not be the virtual worlds platform of the future. It's got lots of problems. It's unstable, doesn't scale well to large numbers of users at a single event, and it's hard to use. The company faces mundane business problems: Lately, users have been complaining about breakdowns in the payment-processing system, with perfectly legitimate real-world credit-card transactions getting rejected far too frequently. Users, including some big businesses, complain that Linden Lab -- the company that owns and operates SL -- doesn't communicate sufficiently well about strategic direction.
Moreover, SL is tainted by a stigma -- too many people associate Second Life with cybersex and other behavior that legitimate businesses shy away from. Second Life is taking steps to mitigate that association, recently banning gambling and some of the more offensive forms of pornography. But those bans risk alienating SL's existing user base, who liked the gambling and porn. And the stigma still remains.
…Imagine something like Google Street View on your GPS-equipped smartphone. Stand in front of a building on a downtown urban street. Look at your smartphone and see an image of the same building. Tap on the image and see information on all the businesses that are tenants in that building, with links to their Web sites, phone numbers, reviews of retail establishment, Standard & Poor ratings, blog posts and newspaper and magazine articles about them, YouTube videos, and more.
Then there's this excellent reader reply to Mitch's post that also argues in favor of a Google-driven virtual world:
commented on Sep 24, 2007 1:56:06 PM
I think that Google has positioned themselves nicely with Google Sketchup, Google Street View, and Google Earth. I think Google Earth will become the client for Google Virtual World with the Street View Imagery superimposed on the Google Sketchup data. Can't wait to see! In the meantime, I'll enjoy the fun found using Google Street View: http://www.laudontech.com/google-street-view/google-street-view.html
In summary: I think Google has greater capacity -- and business sensibilities -- to take virtual worlds mainstream, for both businesses and consumers. Do you agree?