Archive for the ‘Issues and Trends’ Tag

Emerald and the Death of Trust

Cracks in Emerald Viewer's reputation

The Emeraldgate incident, like most similar incidents, goes to the heart of one of the things that make the Internet work — trust.  Yeah, I know; Second Life is supposed to be a model for Net 2.0.  But even here, trust is one of the key things that rocks the planet.

Trust is one of the foundations of society.  We all trust each other that we’re not going to steal from each other’s houses, that our spouses aren’t going to cheat on us, that we won’t end up stabbed in our bed, that our bosses won’t simply fire us because they didn’t like the shirt we wore today.  Trust has glued civilization together since early men chose to work together to bring in the food on a hunt.  You just can’t get away from it.

Trust extends to computer systems as well.  The Golden Age days of computing, the era of the True Hackers of MIT and Stanford [1], provide one of the best illustrations of this.  If you’re unaware of such things, go and read Hackers:  Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy, and find out some of the fundamental history of these machines we’re playing with.  In the beginning, as opposed to the “batch-process” methodology used on most mainframe giants of the time (re:  IBM machines), these ancient heroes would cut their program on a paper tape — the preferred storage medium of the day; it was read in by a Teletype or tape reader — and then just toss the tape into a drawer near the machine, be it the TX-0 or the Digital PDP-1.  If someone else pulled it out and used it, no problem.  If someone else started rewriting it, that was cool.  Social pressure among the hacker community kept them from doing something malign for the most part.  The same philosophy carried over to when they moved to the more advanced PDP-6 and -10 and implemented a time-sharing system, allowing users to share the computer’s resources.  Their system, instead of segmenting access to files, allowed anyone to see anyone else’s files by default.  And, for the most part, it worked.

Unfortunately in some ways, we’ve moved beyond the joyriding days of original hackerdom.  98% of us today have probably never written a computer program; we’re users, not crafters.  We want our software to be ready to use when we click on the file icon and to do what it’s supposed to do.  And here again, we’re trusting the people who’ve written the code to give us a product that performs, performs well, and doesn’t do things it’s not supposed to do.

Now we have Fractured Crystal and the last version of Emerald.  Crystal’s program was a fine program at first — but then he broke the unwritten law of trust with his data-mining library, and with the DDoS attacks on a competitor’s Web site.  (I still haven’t figured out for sure which competitor it is; can someone help me out here?)  The result:  a strong migration of Residents away from Emerald, toward workalike viewer Imprudence, Emerald getting booted off the Third Party Viewer List by Linden Lab, and a climate of distrust for at least the immediate future toward any future builds of the viewer.  You can bet that their next build will be decompiled by several someones and the code examined with an electron microscope — forget the source code they’ll release for public view — and even then, there will be some who won’t trust the program again.

Ain’t it amazing what great fallout can come from such supposedly small acts…?

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[1] The term “hacker” is here used in the classical sense, as in the original Jargon File, later transported onto paper as The New Hacker’s Dictionary.  This meaning was lost when the mainstream media seized the term in the late Eighties or early Nineties and applied it exclusively to those who break into systems, especially for malicious intentions.  (That comes more under the term “crackers” today, according to some.)

Sic Transit Gloria Emerald Viewer

Cracks in Emerald Viewer's reputation

Cracks in Emerald Viewer's reputation

It’s been well reported in various locations about the scandal generated by Emerald Viewer.  The discoveries concerning data mining of IP addresses by Emerald’s developers and a distributed denial-of-service attack code aimed at a competing third-party viewer has knocked even some of the gripes aimed at Linden Lab off the radar.  In the time it’s been available, the third-party viewer had built up a heavy following of devoted users, many of whom loved Emerald for its richness of features not found in the official viewers.  Incredible amounts of power are available through Emerald, from a simple tab of worn items — pioneered by this client, I think — to double-click transport to many locations, down to the infamous “breast physics” available for female avatars.

Now, though, many of the previously faithful are feeling victimized and betrayed.  People’s information and computers were being used, dammit; and nobody appreciates that kind of move, unless they have some strange sociopathic tendencies.  Linden Lab appreciates it the least of all; the Governor has removed its link to Emerald from its Third Party Viewer List, with Philip Rosedale publishing a statement concerning the matter on the Big Blog yesterday. Comments I’ve seen in articles on the matter have Residents deciding to purge Emerald from their computers and download Imprudence, the TPV whose site was targeted in the DDoS attack, and whose code is based strongly on Emerald’s.

Modular Systems has attempted damage control, including an appearance on an SL talk show with Paisley Beebe that had to be taped in a “secret” location to evade griefers.  Emerald is vowing to get back on the TPV list after their lead developer, Fractured Crystal, has apparently left the team and handed over control of the Emerald server to Arabella Steadham. (An article at Sand Castle Studios noted that the Modular Systems site still claimed that Emerald was on the list; however, a check by me shows that this claim has been removed, and I think we can assume with charity that someone was simply slow in updating the page.)

I used Emerald Viewer at one time myself; it was pretty darn spiffy with the features that I used (nowhere near the entire set, but essential ones like double-click transport were nice).  I abandoned it, however, in favor of Kirstens Viewer some months back, because Emerald was taking a horribly long time to download textures or move my avatar.  Even a recent try of what they claimed was their latest showed that, at least on my box, Emerald had become a pig.  Now, with these revelations, I think I’m glad that I’m not using Emerald.  All the scandal has broken something vital to the functioning of anything on the Web, as in real life — trust.  People have to take your word that what you’re offering them is clean and pure, and won’t do things it’s not supposed to do.  Modular Systems has violated not only Linden Lab’s terms of service, but that bond of vital trust.  It will be a long time before I’m willing to extend that trust again.

Emerald probably needs to do at least three things to clean itself up:

  1. Make all of their code completely transparent. No encrypted libraries, no excessive iframes, nothing; just what is required to produce an efficient viewer.
  2. Reveal the RL identities of their developers. No more hiding behind the anonymity of the avatar; they’ll have to take responsibility for their actions, even if the ones there now were not the ones responsible for the things that got Modular Systems into the stew.  At the least, they will need to let Linden Lab know who’s behind this…especially if it ends up in court over the DDoS attack.
  3. Improve the performance of the viewer to an acceptable standard. No more needing to own a screamer system to get just adequate performance — although some of this may need to fall on the users as well.  Heaven knows that technology marches onward, even if bank balances don’t.

UPDATE, 1:21 p.m.: Modular Systems announces on their blog that they have received a list of requirements from Linden Lab before relisting.

Philip Rosedale Returns to Linden Lab CEO Position

Philip Rosedale. (Photo by James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media, Inc., CC Generic 2.0 license)

We’ve had about a day to mull over the news that Mark Kingdon has been given the axe as CEO of Linden Lab, and that Philip Rosedale has resumed the direct control of his brainchild, at least for the interim.  (New World Notes article; Rosedale statement)  As of publishing time, a New World Notes open poll suggests strongly that Residents are in favor of this move — even if we will have to put up with Philip’s spiky hair, Rocky Horror T-shirt and codpiece again:

Poll results as of 6:15 SLT, June 25, 2010. Poll courtesy of New World Notes

I’m one of the more optimistic, for the record.  I’m uncertain how much acceptance Mark has had from the Resident community over his tenure; and many of the Lab’s moves during that time have been controversial, to say the least.  Of course, for all we know, things could have smoothed out at the Lab with his continued presence.  Only the future knows this, and the future has just been rewritten.

The thing that Rosedale has going for him, besides a (presumably) intimate nuts-and-bolts knowledge of how Second Life works, is that his is the vision that created this real incarnation of a concept only in books for the most part, until his company was formed.  Anyone who was brought in from outside to take over would not be part of the Linden Lab culture — an admittedly kooky one at times, but they would not have the same “heart” for it that Philip has.  Many of us felt that way when Kingdon was named CEO in May 2008.  Philip was the creator; Mark was a businessman first and foremost, and I wonder if he tended to see Second Life mainly in that model, as a place for facilitating business.  There were speculations, of course, that Kingdon was brought in to help pave the way for an initial public offering of stock in Linden Lab; a more business-0riented CEO would be considered essential for such a move, and Mark’s tenure as CEO of Organic, a digital-advertising agency.

But a virtual-world business is a hairier operation to run.  You not only have the business aspect to manage; you must also deal with the client base that is the raison d’être for the business’s existence.  Second Life had business presences before, though more of an attempt to advertise their Real Life products in world.  Many of these left during the Great Hype Meltdown of 2008-09, and Kingdon attempted to bring in more business for meeting-type situations with his Second Life Enterprise initiative over the past six months.  Many feel that focus was given to this move, at the expense of Grid stability and Resident satisfaction, as well as other decisions that, according to Gwyneth Llewelyn, intended to pave the way for increased business activity.  (Read her thorough analysis of the situation from June 10.)  The failure of many of these business moves are what led to Kingdon’s dismissal.

The thing is that Mark was right in his broad vision, if not necessarily in his execution.  Second Life — and Linden Lab — cannot survive forever on Residential accounts alone, and definitely not on free accounts.  While some may disagree with the Linden Homes move (Gwyneth believes that this put the Guvnah in direct competition with existing landowners), Linden Lab should encourage conversion of free to Premium accounts.  Additionally, business needs wooing, focusing on the core advantages that Second Life has already offered to huge corporations such as IBM — the hosting and abetment of meetings without the expense and waste of travel for substantial numbers of people.  As much as many of us may not like it, Big Business must be courted in, and must become part of the Grid.

The key will be to find a new CEO that can balance both sides, and deliver continued and improved performance of the virtual platforms.  Rosedale possesses the vision, but he doesn’t seem to possess the business chops, which is why he handed off to Kingdon two years ago.  Philip’s return (dare we call it a resurrection? [grin]) will help restore the balance.  Now we need someone to push the dream forward — on all fronts.  Second Life cannot survive, let alone thrive, without both the yin and yang of the equation.

State of Linden Lab — Critical, Serious, or Healthy?

This discussion is based upon reports from Hamlet Au at New World Notes.

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I haven’t touched the recent news from Linden Lab until now, mainly because I haven’t been sure what to think about the entire thing.  I’m still not sure yet, even after the passage of a week of time.  But it’s part of the mission of this blog to report on the news affecting the Grid, and offer my own opinions on it, and it’s time I weighed in.  We’ll see which way my thoughts move as I write….

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How is Linden Lab actually doing right now?  That is the very thing that is hard to determine unless — perhaps — you’re one of the 30% of Lab employees that were laid off last week.  That group includes many long-term veterans and beloved Lindens, such as T (Tom Hale).  Concern for these folks has been so high among residents that SLeleb CodeBastard Redgrave built a “graveyard” of headstones for the now avocationally-challenged, which has been frequented by Residents leaving flowers, occasionally dancing on the “graves” (a tasteless thing, even for the terminally dissatisfied among the SL population), or simply contemplating whether this event is an omen auguring the future of the Lab.

The Linden Memorial at Rouge, http://slurl.com/secondlife/Rouge/165/72/22

That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 people, based on employment figures mentioned elsewhere.  Not the same as, say, a plant closing somewhere; but to these folks it still means they’re learning the difference between “recession” and “depression.”

But is this an omen that Linden Lab is in financial trouble?  Mark Kingdon insists no, in the original press release, the Big Blog announcement, and in a talk with Hamlet Au.  According to M, the Lab’s in fine shape, and this isn’t a retrenchment dictated by falling revenues.  The problem with this:  especially as a Michigan girl, living in areas where plant layoffs were all too common in bad economic times, I find it hard to believe entirely.  Labor is always among the top 3 or 5 items in company costs, if not the prime item.  This makes it very easy to target employees when you need to balance the books in hard times.  What I would love is to see the actual balance sheet of Linden Research, Inc.  Being a privately-held company, of course, this won’t happen any time soon.

Hamlet’s (admittedly unscientific) poll suggests that readers of New World Notes are overwhelmingly pessimistic about Second Life’s future following the layoff announcement.  Part of this could be from actual fear of the company having revenue problems.  And, with a free-to-join customer base, this can be understood.  Actual revenue, as I understand the Lab’s business model, comes from Premium memberships (which they’ve been pushing on recently, as you’ll note from their frequent message encouraging upgrading to Premium as you log in); sales of land and regions (including tier payments); and, hypothetically, investment return from sales of Linden dollars purchased by Residents or spent as fees (such as upload fees) — in other words, they take the money paid to them and invest for collection of interest.

The following is speculation on my part, but consider it. Based on charts at Tateru Nino’s Dwell On It, user concurrency has been trending downward throughout 2010, although the decline may be leveling off based on early indications, which suggests to me that regular user numbers are going down due to the economy; in other words, a declining pool of potential or current Premium customers, and (extrapolating from this), fewer people interested in purchasing land or paying corresponding tier for it.  The in-world economy itself has proved resilient, suggested by the user-to-user transaction numbers; but how much of this is coming from existing bank accounts, and how much from purchased lindens, such as I normally do to buy my goodies?  Mark, if you’re reading this, how close am I to the mark, and would you be willing to share your actual financial statements to help back up your position?

Once again, these are speculations on my part.  Kingdon may be giving us the straight dope on Linden Lab’s financial conditions.  The thing that makes me wonder is that businessmen tend to paint the rosiest picture possible in their press statements and annual reports.  Warren Buffet, the master of Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the few people who will admit flat out to his investors when his company is stinking, instead of trying to put a positive spin on the numbers.  While I choose to reserve my worries for now, I would like more provable information as to how things are, and whether the largest and (still to me) the best virtual world offering will still be around in 2011.

Mal Burns: Think Like a Hotel, Not Like a Software Company

Tateru Nino, writing for Massively, just put up a piece on one of the things companies offering virtual worlds should consider seriously.  Nino contends that they should think more like the Marriott hotel chain — a service provider — instead of a company selling software, like Microsoft.

I don’t know if the points made about Linden Lab in the article are all true, as I’ve never attended an office time since I first rezzed in, back in 2007.  But many besides Tateru insist that the Lab doesn’t listen to their suggestions, let alone their gripes and complaints; and that is never the way for any business to operate.  Take it from me; I work in an industry, bookselling, where you’d better listen to your customers if you want to satisfy them.  Seriously, any business can lose their customer base faster than they’d believe if they aren’t at least reasonably responsive to their customers’ concerns.

If these complaints about Linden Lab are true, then those who have ears to hear….

SL Viewer 2 — Love It or Hate It; Little In-Between

A fresh issue hath arisen on the Grid, and it doesn’t have anything to do with gambling, or banking (read:  gambling), or policy decisions by Linden Lab.

Or maybe it does have something to do with policy.  For the issue centers around the new Version 2 official viewer, which was formally made gamma a week or so ago.  Viewer 2 is now the main viewer new users are actively offered when they sign up for Second Life; I suspect Snowglobe, the Lab’s own “alternative viewer,” will go eventually in the same direction.  To my experience so far, the Residents are in two distinct camps:  they either enjoy Viewer 2, or they hate it and refuse to leave their Type 1 viewers.  There doesn’t appear to be much of a middle ground.

For my part, I haven’t found anything that terrible about Viewer 2 since the first beta.  The development team addressed many of my concerns with the original beta build, as listed in my first article on the subject and associated comments (particularly by T Linden), and most of my others are more pet peeves than real concerns, easily worked around.  My current primary concern:  Viewer 2 seems to not like “crowded” or “prim-busy” sims (the best way I can express it, not dependent on avatar presence) when you first teleport in.  I’ve tended — though not consistently — to crash out of Second Life after a serious period of lock-up as my computer thrashes with the situation.  A fresh login usually solves the problem, but it gets annoying.

However, in defense of Viewer 2, the official version 1.x viewer could do that at times as well, and even the so-lauded third-party viewers could have problems with such a situation, as well as their own glitches and idiosyncrasies.  Kirsten’s Shadowdraft, for instance, has a terrible problem with texture loading in my experience; and the last version of Emerald that I used was far slower than previous versions.  Out of recent alternative 1.x viewers, Snowglobe was the best I’ve used in recent days, believe it or not.

Overall, with respect to friends and fellow Residents, I believe this is rather the situation that was addressed once in the New Hacker’s Dictionary — known better to many as the Jargon File.  I can’t remember now which it was, but one of the definitions noted that people put a lot of emotional investment in their tools, even if the tools are mere objects and completely non-sentient.  The look and feel of the Second Life viewer was bound to change eventually; indeed, we should remember the private competition that was held sometime in the past year to year and a half, with a large prize in lindens offered for the best redesign of the 1.x viewer — meant, as I recall, to offer an easier experience to new users as much as anything.  Does the concept sound a little familiar?  Rather like what Linden Lab is now trying to do with Viewer 2…?

Give this new viewer a chance, says I.  Get used to its different layout and idiosyncracies, remember that most if not all of the keyboard shortcuts are still the same, and work with the Lab to encourage them — not “demand” that they “fix the damned thing.”  Such things prove more productive in the long run.

Wallace Linden on Proliferating Online “Identity”

Wallace Linden kicked off an excellent article in the Big Blog yesterday (Jan. 22) that can be summed up with this question:  just how “identified” are you?

The two following paragraphs seem to have the nub of Wallace’s point here.  First:

…To me, there’s nothing virtual at all about my presence in various online contexts. Like many people, I have a handful of email addresses, a Flickr username, an XboxLive gamertag, and more than one Second Life account. Each of these represents an aspect of my identity, one of the various ways I express myself online. And as Web and mobile services continue to work their way into all corners of our lives, these aspects will continue to proliferate — and as they do, we’ll start facing important questions about how we handle these collections of selves….

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