Next steps for open source Second Life

Yesterday’s announcement by Linden Lab that the software you run on your computer to interact with Second Life will be opened up to anyone who wants to contribute to its future development generated wide-ranging commentary in the media and among bloggers.

Making the so-called front end client software open source should enable more innovation to emerge as anyone with some great ideas and programming skills will be able to create and build on the foundation that Linden Lab has created.

More importantly, providing users of Second Life with improved or different experiences in their access to and interaction with the virtual world – and, hopefully, software that’s simpler and much easier to use – should have a stimulating effect on new registrations as well as user activity.

I’ve been following Second Life developments with keen interest for a while now, and speculating on what the future holds for this virtual world as well as for Linden Lab. Yesterday’s announcement brings to mind my post in late December and specifically this comment by Tateru Nino on December 24:

[…] Making the viewer available as an open source item would certainly speed up adoption in some ways. It would almost immediately add possibilities for simplified user-interfaces (new users are presented with an interface that’s far more complicated than it needs to be), or custom branding (businesses love brands and branding), plus of course, the ability to crib from clever fixes and ideas. An open source viewer *does* also give people the information and testing basis to create their own grids and servers, in a limited way – although actually doing that would be a dense technical effort.

So what does this all mean to today’s Second Life users – individuals and companies – and new signups?

In the practical sense, not a lot actually. It will be some time (many weeks but probably not many months) before anyone has a new application that’s available beyond fans and hardcore testers. And there are many of them – just take a look at the varying opinions among the more than 330 comments to the Second Life blog post about the announcement. Not everyone there thinks this is a good idea.

In the meantime, you can be sure an awful lot of creativity will be going on by programmers of every type, from one-man-bands to large companies.

One other development concept resulting from this announcement that I think is very exciting is that of producing versions of the Second Life client for mobile devices (mobile phones, for instance). Imagine what that would mean for usability. I’d say there’s a chance of such an application emerging sooner through the open source development community.

Or perhaps it might enable Linden Lab to concentrate on that sort of application development.

Looking further ahead, it’s not difficult to make a leap and think about other possibilities, such as this interesting idea by Michael Arrington:

[…] At current growth trends, though, SL could be a real economic force in a few years. When things really start to hop, SL will look more like it’s own private Internet. Or a privately held virtual nation. At the point that millions of people spend most or all of their waking hours within the SL world, we’ll know this has happened. I think people (and governments) will start to get a little nervous at that point. It will be impossible for SL to put both its shareholders and users first, and history suggests that users will get the shaft.

[…] What might make more sense in the long run is more of a Wikipedia-like approach to Second Life. A non profit organization running open source software where people can add their own island just by plugging in a server in their living room or the hosting provider of their choice. Whoever builds that and provides a serious alternative to the SL experience could help the world at least as much as Wikipedia has.

And so speculation will focus on the future for Linden Lab.

Among many other things.

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