For many people outside of the "virtual worlds industry" the terms "virtual world" and "Second Life" are still more or less synonyms. This is especially funny, as many people in the industry seem to have written off Second Life because of many disappointing developments in 2007 and the big negative hype in the press. It is much more en vogue currently, to place your bets on the new kids on the block: Vivaty, WebFlock and especially Lively (by Google!).
It is not a secret, though, that Linden Lab's management and investors still believe that the Second Life technology will be the (or a least "a") corner stone of the future Web3D. Is this totally unrealistic? And would would Linden Lab have to do, to make this come true if it isn't? Making the platform more stable is a simple answer - and certainly a pre-requesite. But what about other decisions? More control? Or less? More openness? Or a tightly controlled product? And a product for which target groups? Based on what business model?
Actually - and for some of my readers maybe surprisingly - I think that Linden Lab has a strategy for the coming years and Second Life's place in the Metaverse.
While I am not sure, that the company's management and shareholders has answers ready for all of the questions mentioned above, it is interesting to read the speech of Mitch Kapor (creator or the first successful spreadsheet software and a major Investor in LL) and the latest blog post of Linden Lab's new CEO, Mark Kingdon. (Check here, too.) Both will tell you, that Linden Lab indeed has a rather profitable business model, is expecting significant growth and is targeting markets way outside the current user base (actually alienating large groups in the current user base). In parallel, it is interesting to see, that Linden Lab created a "Department of Public Works" earlier this year, which is responsible for "beautifying Second Life" - after a long long time, where the company just flooded the market with more and more "land" (servers) which quickly were converted into huge trailer parks.
These activities seem to lead into different directions ... but I believe, that they are all part of a unified strategy to position Second Life as a standard tool for creating and accessing the future Web 3D as well as to position Linden Lab as one - but not the only - important service provider.
The problem for Linden Lab is, that they target so many dfferent audiences. And it is impossible, to offer all of these audiences ONE single product, a product that will make all of them happy.
I think Linden Lab did the right thing to put some effort into their mainland (the area of Second Life managed by Linden Lab and not by resellers) again. Many new users come to SL and dont trust the resident run "estates". I don't like this (I head one of the largest real estate firms of Second Life ;) but I have to accept that. Some of these users dont like the chaos and the ugliness of the current mainland, too. So - enhancing the mainland is certainly a good idea for this target group.
I still think - egoistically fueled probably - that Linden Lab should not make the owners of private estates pay such a huge penalty for the privilege of hosting their own land. There is no factual reason for this (besides: "we can do it") and this does not benefit the development of the (SL-based part of the) Metaverse. Providing quality solutions would be much easier (economically), if private estate land were not 50% more expensive than mainland. This pricing reflects the short term financial goals of LL and is not really good for the long term development. But most companies are ruled by short term goals :)
Emphasizing rules and governance - which happened a lot over the last 18 months - is certainly not a bad idea, either. If the core product of Second Life is seen as an lawless anarchy, many potential customers won't like that - and governments CERTAINLY don't like that and would give Linden Lab a hard time. It is a difficult balance ... not to piss of the important subcultures and soothing the mainstream audience and the authorities.
But, comparing SL to "The West" (as Mitch Kapor did it in his birthday speech), please consider: not all of the important groups and personalities in the American West of the 1840s or so would be well respected citizens in the California of 2008 :) Times change ...
And a second important audience, Linden Lab is targeting, too, is the corporate audience, the educational institutions, etc. Despite Linden Lab's propaganda, this is a very small market today (the majority of earnings comes from consumers) but it is growing. This audience needs more "control & security". If Linden Lab wants to succeed in these markets, they have to provide that - not only on seperate estates, because the vast society of Second Life CAN be an interesting aspect for some of these projects, too :) Not all of them work best in a walled garden.
For those who want a walled garden, I am sure, that Linden Lab will soon offer some options which go well beyond what is possible on private estates. It will be possible to host closed sub-grids in Linden Lab's data centers in 2009. I am very certain of that. :) And I hope, we will have a viable competitor with OpenSim, too. Just now this "product" is not fit for consumer solutions and just barely useable for other target groups. In all honesty, for most projects I can imagine right now, Linden Labs servers, which cost 295$/month deliver better value for money than the 30$ sims on 3rd party grids. But this will change ... The prices, too :)
So ... like in the internet, we will have a lot of diversity in products based on SL technology in 2009: there will be clean (puritan) environments. Linden Lab will offer one. Others will do that, too. There will be "adult grids" (they are already being built). There will be grids for many, many sub-cultures and those will certainly not have the same set of rules like Linden Labs SL has (now or then). And there will be corporate "Intraworlds", educational and marketing grids, tightly controlled and partly or fully closed off to the public.
I guess, Linden Lab feels the need to support ALL of these directions. And face the risk - no: certainty -, that any new feature which is good for one target group is considered by another as damaging or superfluous.
The Metaverse is growing rapidly this year - and growing more diverse. New solutions like Vivaty, Lively, tools like Multiverse, Project Wonderland, WebFlock, Metaplace etc. expand the metaphor of what is "a virtual world". They attract new audiences and might lure away some old customers. Linden Lab has to succeed in this ever growing and changing market. I am afraid, this wont be possible by focusing on the current user base, alone.
And contrary to public opinion, I think they have at strategy ready (probably only as a rough outline) to stay one of the major platforms to consider for many projects in virtual worlds.