There are a number of themes that keep recurring when you discuss Second Life specifically, and more generally, virtual worlds and Internet business itself.
One is "How do you capture and retain new users?" This has been an especially large challenge for Linden Lab over the years, and more and more time and resources have been devoted to meeting that challenge.
The latest effort on the part of Linden Lab comes in the form of a new viewer, simply called Basic.
A Long Standing Problem
The complexity of the Second Life Viewer interface has always been a hurdle for the Lab in terms of retaining new users. I've mentioned that before.
I've also mentioned before that Linden Lab is looking to expand their user base by tapping into larger social networks, and in order to do that, they needed to create a viewer that would appeal to a different mentality of internet culture, and not merely "a newbie viewer". The new, Basic viewer seems to be the first real attempt at that goal.
It's important to recognize the distinction between "simplified" and "going after a whole different market share" here. While the new viewer is indeed simplified by a great deal, in its current incarnation, it seems to be more interested in the latter than the former, as it takes away options and capabilities inherent to SL culture, replacing them with far more generic options typically seen in standard video games and other social networking venues, as well as a nod towards devices that we haven't seen supporting SL to date, like tablets. This can be seen by examining what's available, what isn't, and how it's changed.
Who, Where, What & Why
Fundamental to Second Life culture is the fact that you can edit your appearance in myriad minute ways. The default avatars have rarely been good and are usually plagued with serious proportion problems.
Part of what you create in Second Life, even if you create nothing else, is yourself. The new, basic viewer option removes that ability.
Instead, the new viewer allows you 24 avatar options (which are plagued by proportion problems as usual). These are the only options you get. You cannot alter them in any way, unless you log out of the basic viewer, and log in again to "advanced."
But changing your appearance is one of the things most people want to do first in SL, so why remove it? Because it's not about SL newbies -- it's about trying to get a different market share, one that is used to stock avatars and doesn't care about SL culture.
One of the things people ask a lot when they're new to SL is "Where do I go? What's interesting to do?" This is a difficult question to answer, since the options of "things to do" are unlimited and are only bounded by the likes and dislikes of the person asking.
Linden Lab has always maintained a "Destination Guide" of places and activities they recommend. Like any destination guide or generalized guidebook anywhere, those recommendations are limited to what could generally be considered "safe" options.
When people travel in the real world, they are often looking to visit places the tourists don't go. "Safe" becomes a secondary consideration to "interesting." In SL that would translate to word of mouth and the search button.
Search has been busted in various ways for a year now, but at least it still existed. In the new basic viewer mode, there is no search at all. There is merely the destination guide, steering you toward the locations the Lab thinks you should investigate.
Just as it was with the recent web based trial of the Skylight viewer you have no access to inventory. This makes the viewer easier to manage, certainly, and it assuredly makes it lighter on the computer to load.
This is helpful for slower systems or even tablet computers which don't have the power of a typical desktop computer setup. But with no access to inventory, you have no need for "stuff." Because you have no need for stuff, you also have no need for money.
That, right there is the tipoff that this isn't about new SL users at all, but a shift in trying to gain an entirely new market share, without trying to assimilate it into SL culture.
New Market, New Marketing
At best, the basic viewer isn't basic at all. It's more like a demo viewer. It's a tourist viewer. It may be that this is a way for the Lab to insert itself into the tablet market, as this viewer type is less resource intensive.
The new Basic viewer features "click to move" control that has been popular in video games for years, making it more intuitive for people coming from that arena. But essentially, all you can do with this viewer is go to a limited set of destinations, look around, and chat.
The fact that the avatars aren't editable will make those 24 stock avatars easily recognizable, and because it will already be known that these accounts are not able to access inventory or money, they may very well be considered to be little more than annoying poltergeists before long -- taking up time and resources but not capable of giving anything back.
Being in the Destination Guide and accessible to the basic viewer may do those locations more harm than good -- an avatar still takes up sim resources -- even one that can't really bring any added value to the location, not just with money, but with atmosphere as well (as they can't edit appearance or carry inventory they can't change clothes to blend with their surroundings).
Interestingly, what is still included in the basic viewer is the infernal gesture button, which is one of the few things that could have been removed, as it would force people using the viewer to actually learn to chat rather than spam the location with a thousand annoying pre-recorded sound bites.
The fact that this viewer doesn't allow inventory or money is another clue that they're after a new market entirely. Second Life is an economy, in many ways, first and foremost. By not allowing participation in that economy via the viewer itself is a radical shift in direction, and one that is not going to please business owners in any way, shape or form.
Since it seems an enormous use of resources on the Lab's part to create a viewer that will only be useful to new SL users for a day or two at most, it seems clear that the market they're after is not traditional SL users. What seems far more likely to me is that this is the next step in the Tinfoil Hat Theory, and is a way to tie in Facebook more firmly with SL, using a light interface that has less choice and functionality, and is closer to what a FB user might expect.
Even if they only get a small percentage of those users eventually make the switch to a more advanced and full featured viewer, considering the total number of Facebook accounts, it could translate into a large number of new signups for the platform.
Whether they stay in SL is another matter, but at first glance that counts for less than you might think, as the Lab uses total account numbers and not active account numbers, as a public metric for success.
A Middle Ground
Whether it's to grab the larger social networking market, or to try to ease their way into the tablet market, what does seem clear is that this new basic viewer isn't about new, traditional SL users at all. That market segment is still not being served by the current available options.
What potentially needs to happen is something that is somewhere between Basic and Advanced, which would appeal to new users, but not overwhelming them. At the same time, it would need to allow for people to have more options and perhaps most importantly, be able to participate within the existing economy. Then again, that's what Viewer 2 was supposed to do in the first place, but that hasn't gone so well. Ahem.
The Basic Viewer is fine, as long as you know who it's really trying to grab. That person isn't a traditional, new SL account. The Tinfoil Hat Theory moves forward. Now if someone could make a real "newbie" viewer and remove the gesture button forever? I'd love that, thanks.