December 26, 2006

2006 : A watershed year for Virtual Worlds

As the year 2006 draws to a close, it is interesting to take stock of things that happened and speculate on how these will impact the year ahead .. and in this exercise the one single thing that stands out is SecondLife - The Emergence of Virtual Worlds.

Milestones and signposts are seldom recognised when we whiz past them on the highway .. it is only when you have traversed some significant distance, do you realise how important that fork in the road was ... both for those who have taken the right fork and for those who were left behind on the wrong one.

To appreciate, the enormous significance of this tectonic movement, one must go back to the year 1995-96 when Netscape went public and the Internet, for all practical purposes was born.

The world had not been wired up as comprehensively as yet and we in India got wind of this techTsunami in 1996 when the first few intrepid cybernauts in India set sail on a voyage of discovery.

It was voyage of discovery as well as a voyage of faith. VSNL connections were flaky and brittle and 64 kbps leased line cost more than Rs 10 lakhs per annum. [ Today, a 115kpbs datacard from a CDMA service provider costs Rs 500/month ]. Pages used to load slowly and most computers did not have enough horsepower to run the bloated java applets.

Many of us surfed through the few foreign websites and tried to create our own amateur stuff on the free servers provided by Tripod, Lycos, Geocities and finally the grand daddy of them all Yahoo. The world of brick and mortar laughed and finally when our bubble of enthusiasm burst in 2000 ... everyone wisely nodded their heads and said we told you so ...

Only they were wrong, and so utterly and comprehensively wrong that it is not even worth talking about when web based eCommerce and eBusiness has taken off so well .. whether for retail or air tickets or eBanking ... you name a business and it is there on the web, even if the original business model has been turned on its head.

History repeats itself (though fortunately, not always as a tragedy or a farce ) and where we are today, with Virtual Worlds ( or 3D internet, as some say), is exactly the original classic Internet/Web was ten years ago.

Powered by the enthusiasm for Massively MultiUser Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) Virtual Worlds have taken the Real World by storm ... or at least the first few intrepid 3DCybernauts. What Netscape was to the Internet, SecondLife is for Virtual Worlds ... the catalyst, the fuse ... that has set off the rocket that will lead us to the stars.

There are no dearth of naysayers -- who believe that all this is a game, a child's play with no potential for anything substantial. Fortunately, their tribe is shrinking as more and more people move towards a seamless integration of their Real Life and Second Life, their real world and virtual world, the immense potential is visible to all those who have the eyes to see beyond the next email.

How has Second Life catalysed all this ? Through a simple techno-legal trick - by defining and enforcing the concept of Property Rights in Virtual Worlds. Property right, whether on virtual real estate and, more importantly, on Intellectual Property created in the virtual world is the real oxygen that is fuelling the growth -- and that is the real significance of Second Life.

Going forward, SecondLife and their creator Linden Labs, may be overcome by economic forces ( though I sincerely wish them all the best), just as Netscape was, but the benevolent genie that they have uncorked will never go back into the bottle.

Actually, America Online is perhaps a better model for Linden Labs because AOL with its proprietory client software and AOL stores was the pre-cursor to the world wide web. Second Life currently runs on a proprietory client that connects to a proprietory server .. and it is a matter of time before we have equivalent functionality being delivered through a open source virtual world client (Mozilla like) that can connect to any open source server ( somewhat like Apache) .. and then the world will not be the same anymore.

Many of us were not around the connected world in 1993 when AOL started but some of us might just remember the Netscape IPO in 1995. Today the world is different .. information flows faster than light !!! and it would be nice to remember that 2006 is the year when thanks to Linden Labs and Second Life, the Virtual World has finally met the Real world and the borders between the two are becoming increasingly blurred.

p.s. how many of you can survive today without an email ID ? None ... especially if you are reading this on the web. going forward, it is my humble prediction that NONE of you will be able to survive without an avatar in SecondLife or equivalent virtual world.

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