Putting a Second Life First
There is little about virtual worlds that is solid. Granted, life in an online fantasy like Second Life is supposed to be ephemeral, no more concrete than the electrons that make a computer screen come to life. But Philip Rosedale is CEO of a living, breathing company behind Second Life called Linden Lab, and it is riding a real-world wave of new users and publicity that suggests the blossoming of an Internet superstar. Unless, too, the fame and fortune prove as fleeting as a user's alter-ego appearance in the world that Rosedale dreamed up.
Second Life, where users interact in a cartoonlike world that they create, has rocketed in recent months, luring hundreds of thousands of people to download its free software and step inside. But the fast growth could spur a backlash, warns Stephen Prentice, a market analyst at Gartner, particularly if the company can't keep up with demands on its creation, which at times appears overcrowded. "It's an immersive and attractive experience," Prentice says. "But there are glitches."
Open sesame. So the 38-year-old Rosedale is making changes, electing recently to "open source" the software that enables real people to interact with the world, letting anyone muck with it. He's also preparing to do the same for software that runs its core computers, allowing others to add to Second Life's virtual terrain. "It's a way to bring in the broader community in helping us to develop this," Rosedale says.
Opening up can also extend the business model that has put Linden Lab, based in San Francisco with about 110 employees, on the verge of profitability four years after launching Second Life. Its approach is similar to Web locales like YouTube or MySpace, where users do most of the work. It has also drawn savvy investors, including Mitch Kapor, of Lotus 1-2-3 fame, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
At any time, Second Life is typically hosting about 20,000 avatars, or fake personalities, who are chatting in its simulated streets, shopping in storefronts, attending shows, and otherwise participating in the charming and seamy sides of a culture that is much like our own. Only it is in a virtual, 3-D world, meaning objects can be rotated and avatars can pivot to see what's around them. It's similar to the popular Sims computer games, except the Sims Online version never caught on.
In Second Life, residents themselves have constructed most of what exists there. Second Life residents also earn local currency, called Linden dollars, by developing their real estate or selling goods and services, including sexual chitchat (the software, so far, doesn't envision physical contact). Residents buy the currency using real credit cards and can cash them in using an official exchange ratecurrently about $270 Linden to an RL, or real life, dollar. At least one "resident" claims that she has assets valued at more than a million real dollars. Linden Lab makes its money by selling and taxing the real estate in Second Life, as well as getting a cut from currency exchanges.