Second Life Goes Open Source – Should It Be Non Profit, Too?

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Second Life made their client software open source today, sparking near rapture among its hard core users (see comments to their blog post). The first two paragraphs of the announcement talk a lot about about the inevitability of destiny. And they mention Second Life in the same breath as Mosaic and Mozilla.

I’m a Second Life fan, but sometimes the hype gets to be a little too much. At any given time up to 20,000 or so people are logged in to the service. That’s not enough adoption to justify putting Second Life in the same sentence as Mosaic and Mozilla just yet. Today, it’s the playground for just a few hard core users who can live with an annoying server lag and who, apparently, spend at least some of their time gleefully throwing penises at others. Second Life is a really fancy hosting business, since their main revenue source is renting servers for people who buy islands and other real estate.

At current growth trends, though, SL could be a real economic force in a few years. When things really start to hop, SL will look more like it’s own private Internet. Or a privately held virtual nation. At the point that millions of people spend most or all of their waking hours within the SL world, we’ll know this has happened.

I think people (and governments) will start to get a little nervous at that point. It will be impossible for SL to put both its shareholders and users first, and history suggests that users will get the shaft. I can image the most bizarre anti-trust lawsuits in history being fought in courtrooms around the world.

What might make more sense in the long run is more of a Wikipedia-like approach to Second Life. A non profit organization running open source software where people can add their own island just by plugging in a server in their living room or the hosting provider of their choice. Whoever builds that and provides a serious alternative to the SL experience could help the world at least as much as Wikipedia has.

I’m a big fan of private enterprise, but when it comes to creating the next world, perhaps the interests of shareholders should come second to those of its actual residents. And since virtual worlds have many of the attributes of a natural monopoly, running them via a non profit organization may make a lot of sense.

Bloggers are also noting that Second Life has only open sourced the client software portion of their business, not the actual grid. Steve O’Hear speculates on what would happen if they did open source the grid, allowing anyone to add their own server (and therefore real estate) to the system. The result would be a plummet in real estate prices in SL.

Our previous Second Life coverage is here.

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