Sometimes, when you write a weekly column, the news breaks just before press time. As much as "Stop the Press!" makes for a great scene in a movie, in reality it's usually more like "I'll save that for next week." (I'll be honest- last week's column took me forever- by the time I was done I was *done*.) Considering the speed of the news coming out from Linden Lab these days, that happens a lot. Though it was my intention this week to discuss search (or the lack of it) in SL, the truth is that search is still going to be busted next week unless something drastic happens, and I'm not holding my breath on that. But, my tinfoil hatters, there's new and more pressing news to report.
The Breaking News.
Last week, just before press time (such as it is) the news broke about Skylight, a browser based Second Life viewer being tested this month by the Lab. Now, no one should be particularly surprised that such a project exists. It's hardly been a secret that this is something that Linden Lab has pushed hard to do. But there are some circumstances surrounding the project that are mighty curious. So down the rabbit hole we go.
Curiouser and curiouser.
There's an interesting bit of language in the Skylight FAQ I want to call out:
"In order to introduce the best Second Life experience to potential new Residents,"
This supports what I've been saying all along- their focus is not on current residents at all. Every project I've discussed is interconnected with the ultimate goal of obtaining an entirely new userbase that has been elusive thus far. Though it's clear from the FAQ that this is really just a test, as many features of SL are unsupported(inventory, L$ balances, the ability to buy and sell things on marketplace, and friends lists), my guess is this is what passes for an Alpha Test, and it's just the beginning of a larger scale testing program that will roll out very quickly once this initial test ends.
What's also interesting is the duration of this test. According to the Skylight FAQ the initial test is only scheduled to go for two weeks. That's a mighty short test, even for an alpha. I'm not even sure if there is such a thing as a proper alpha test down there anyway, given the way other large projects have been pushed out of beta(why yes, I am still having problems with marketplace, why do you ask?) Linden Lab has a long and consistent history of pushing projects out and calling them live before they're worked out properly. I doubt this will be any different- in fact, I think that this will be a prime example of the same thing.
Why? I think they're on a deadline. A very, very hard internal deadline. Let's call it.. the end of the year.
I say that because the timing is interesting. It's yet another in a series of rapid fire, large scale developments in a short (approximately nine month) span of time, during which the Lab has gone down to a bare bones crew on the top end, with only four executives remaining at the time of this writing. When you add in the fact that the venture capitalists who funded Second Life are itching for their ROI, the scaling back of the executive staff(not to mention the over 30% layoff of the general staff) seems to be in line with a cost cutting measure, making the Lab more attractive to potential buyers. While I don't think that the Lab is for sale *today*, I think that as the stars align on the Tinfoil Hat Theory that possibility will become a probability, and eventually a likely reality. Skylight, even by itself, makes the Lab more attractive to potential buyers.
But why is Skylight itself so potentially valuable?
Fast, Easy, Fun... and Sneaky.
At the last Second Life Community Conference back in July, Philip Rosedale (at that time acting CEO of Linden Lab) announced a new catchphrase: Fast, Easy, Fun. He punched that phrase like a boxer in a prizefight, over and over, much to the chagrin of those who prefer things to be Slow, Complex, and Interesting(insert that rant here- just pretend I've already done it and save me the time.). One of the things he mentioned was immediately connecting new users with experiences- linking that "first hour experience" directly with things that might actually be interesting, such as those featured on the SL Destination Guide.
That's what they're planning on doing with Skylight. Even in the test, users ability to access SL will be limited to a few regions (I'm kind of bummed- the timing was bad for us, as Dark Eternity is currently in the middle of a massive rebuild) featured in the Destination Guide. It links people directly and immediately with 'destination quality' experiences (though I am not sure how they're going to get around that 'how to teach people how it all works' problem). But If the test works, Skylight goes a long way towards the Lab stated goals of Fast, Easy, Fun as outlined by Philip's speech back in July.
What also seems important to the Lab is to set itself up as a leader in the booming virtual goods market. That takes a bunch of integrated pieces to pull off, and in the past nine months, all the various interconnecting projects have begun to come together so that could potentially happen. It's not just about SL itself, it's about the virtual goods market in general.
But for SL, ultimately it's about getting new users. It's also about getting people to be logged in more often and for longer stretches of time. When you're limited to a large, heavy stand alone application, the opportunities to access it are limited. However, if you put it in a browser, it's a lot easier for people to access SL in locations they couldn't previously. At that point, other than in locations where a specific block against it has been added, SL could be accessed from anywhere- even at work, and left running in the background all day long, much like Facebook and Twitter are now. As long as you have a browser, you have SL. That makes Second Life much more accessible to a wider userbase than it has ever been before.
A Whole New World... for Advertisers.
But it's more than that. It's also about the potential for advertising. See, inworld advertising is a bit of a tough sell to companies that don't really 'get' Second Life. It's a little difficult to grasp. People are still dubious about virtual worlds, despite the hard numbers of the virtual world economy. But web based advertising? That's something long since understood, and a much easier sell. As I've mentioned before, we're headed towards a more monetized grid in 2011, and advertising via web would certainly be an important part of that plan.
Why do I mention advertising? Oh, right- because of this. This hit my desk last week also. While it seems awfully bare bones, the truth is that's all it really needs to be right now. But it would not be surprising to see this linked up with Skylight in order to further monetize the system, in association with marketplace and its potential linkup to Facebook.
If they can make Skylight work (and I expect that working or not, it will be dubbed 'working' either way and roll out live by Gothmas) they've just about gotten all the ducks lined up in a row for not only a huge potential windfall for the lab and a way to make back that ROI in spades for the venture capitalists, but a deeply saleable product should they decide to put the Lab up for grabs. They'll have not only a way to reach a huge, untapped potential market, but a way to monetize every last step of it along the way, with the Lab, advertisers and (one can hope) content creators making money as well.
They do still have a problem, though.
The issue with monetization is that in order to take advantage of any of it, they're back to needing a top notch search system. Right now, that not only doesn't exist, but rather... the opposite of that exists. It's like that alternate evil Star Trek universe, only you know, with a search engine.
But I figure search will still be busted next week- so I can talk about it then.