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Second Life Founder Outlines Plans For Global Domination

Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab, talked about the company and service's open source plans, future business model, and stability problems, and he fielded questions about whether Linden Lab is open to being acquired by Google or anybody else.

Mitch Wagner

May 2, 2007

7 Min Read

Second Life founder Philip Rosedale said Tuesday he hopes to see nearly everyone in the real world active in his virtual world within 10 years.

"I hope we can look back 10 years from now and say that we grew Second Life as fast as we could," said Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab, the company that develops and operates Second Life. Rosedale delivered a keynote address at the Life 2.0 Summit, a conference and trade show about Second Life that's going on in Second Life. The Summit is produced by Dr. Dobb's Journal, which is produced by the same company that produces InformationWeek.

Rosedale's plans are grandiose for a service that's still pretty small. Reliable usage stats are hard to come by, but analysis of Linden Lab's own figures point to the service having significantly fewer than 310,000 unique, active users.

By comparison, the online game World of Warcraft had 8.5 million players in March..

And yet Second Life is booming. The number of individual accounts topped 6 million sometime after 6 p.m. PDT Tuesday. (Users of the game can have multiple accounts.) The monthly growth rate in paid accounts was 13% in March, bringing the total to 75,000 paid accounts. The growth rate in paid accounts was 15% in February.

While Rosedale 's avatar, Philip Linden, stood at a podium on Dr. Dobb's Island, the avatars of attendees sat in the audience, and the actual people represented by those avatars listened to streaming audio of Rosedale speaking, and posed questions over text chat.

This is Rosedale's avatar:

Philip Rosedale's avatar delivers a keynote at the Life 2.0 conference

I didn't get a crowd shot at Rosedale's talk, but I did get one yesterday for the talk by Mitch Kapor, Linden Lab's chairman, computing pioneer, and inventor of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. Today's crowd looked pretty much the same. This is one section of the auditorium; there are two more like it:

The crowd watching Mitch Kapor's keynote at the Life 2.0 conference in Second Life

That's my avatar, Ziggy Figaro, in the brown suit and hat in the front row.

Rosedale said the company needs to stop being the central operator and developer of Second Life in order to achieve the level of growth he dreams of. Open-sourcing both the client used for viewing Second Life, and the server software used to run it, is key to that strategy.

"I want us to be the biggest open source project ever," Rosedale said.

Open sourcing Second Life is part of Linden Lab's strategy to grow by allowing other companies to run Second Life software on their own servers and also run "agent services, directed at avatars," Rosedale said. "We believe we won't be successful unless infrastructure can be provided by multiple people and companies, not just us."

That strategy undercuts Linden Lab's chief current source of revenue -- licensing space on its server software (or, to use Second Life jargon, "selling land.") In the future, Linden Lab sees itself as continuing to provide centralized services for Second Life, including managing inventory, security, and authentication. The company also hope to continue to be a source of innovating code.

Other companies will likely be allowed to run their own Second Life servers before the software is completely open sourced, he said.

Linden Lab will need to overcome scalability problems to achieve growth. The service is prone to slowdowns -- which residents call "lagginess" -- outages, and a plethora of other bugs. Rosedale says the problems are caused by rapid growth, and because of the architecture, which is only partially decentralized.

Each region of Second Life runs on a separate server, called "sims." "The sim architecture is an architecture that's highly scalable," Rosedale said. "Simulators are connected only to their neighbors, they provide local support for people standing on them and they don't care if there are millions of people elsewhere," he said. On the other hand, services such as inventory management, instant messaging and instantaneous travel between servers (known in Second Life jargon as "teleporting") are centralized services, and therein lie the scalability problems.

"The frustrating thing is that we can't anticipate these problems, the good news is that the long-term, high-level infrastructure is sound. We're going through some growing pains," he said. But the problems will be resolved.

Any company faced with Second Life's growth would have the same problems, he said.

Linden Lab would be willing to partner with a larger company to increase the size, stability, and uptime of Second Life, but would not do so unless the partner company lived up to Linden Lab's ideals for the service. Linden Lab is motivated by evangelical fervor, believing that virtual worlds can help make people better and make the real world a better place.

One audience member asked: "Has Google offered to buy you?" and another quipped, "How many tulips will Google offer?"

Rosedale responded by noting that Linden Lab has 130 employees and is profitable, showing it has a working business model. "We're not one of those companies that has to find a partner or acquirer to operate. They have a wonderful idea and it works but they don't have a business model." Those companies need to be acquired by Google to function, to get revenue from advertising. Linden Lab is not one of those companies and plans to continue operating independently.

Another audience member asked whether Linden Lab provides, or plans to provide, protection against eavesdropping and other security measures for companies looking to use Second Life for collaboration.

Rosedale said in the near term Linden Lab is rolling out tools to assure owners of regions in Second Life -- called "estates" -- that they're the only ones with access to chat logs and other data. In the long term, companies will be able to assure security and privacy by running their own servers.

Linden Lab keeps logs of all chats and instant messaging in-world for several weeks, to comply with legal requirements and help resolve disputes between members. In the future, Second Life will have distributed chat repositories.

Linden lab is developing voice chat for Second Life; it's currently in beta. Rosedale said he's uncertain whether Linden Lab will keep recordings of voice chats. "I don't think so," he aid. "I'm not sure. But obviously that represents a heck of a lot more data than text chat. I can see that logically being a feature that people could potentially enable." The recording would need to be enabled or disabled by users.

One of the more exciting developments in Second Life will be the inclusion of a Web browser in-world, Rosedale said. Right now, there's no good way to display Web pages inside Second Life; there isn't even a good way to display text in-world. But Linden Lab is working on technology to allow developers to display HTML in Second Life.

Rosedale said Linden Lab hopes to open a family-friendly area where parents and their children can use Second Life together. Right now, Second Life itself is forbidden to children and teens, while Teen Second Life is open to teens but forbidden to adults.

Rosedale said that Second Life was the fulfillment of a childhood dream, conceived when he started programming and using computers.

"It seemed to me that when you think about programming computers and building things with computers, the ultimate thing you'd want to build would be a world," he said.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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