Second Life Goes Open Source– First Thoughts, With Linden Lab’s Replies (Updated)

I was only hours from posting a sequel to the ongoing “Is Second Life Over-Hyped?” controversy, when Linden Lab spun the conversation in a totally different direction: starting today, the company behind the user-created world will open source the code that runs the SL viewer. Official announcement here, some out-the-gate enthusiasm from free culture advocate/Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow here; while you’re at it, grab your own copy of the code here.
But is this actually a good idea? Down the road, absolutely. But right now? There, I’m not so sure; actually, I worry this comes a touch too soon. I put my concerns to Linden CTO Cory Ondrejka, who managed to bounce back some brief replies during what must surely be a savagely busy day. His terse rejoinders to my rough-hewn first reactions after the break.
Before going further, by the way, I should first flash my full disclosure badge to indicate I have a vested interest in Second Life succeeding— so in this case, what follows is not just industry analysis, but personal and professional concern.

Revenge of CopyBot

As it happens, there already is an early project to develop an alternate version of the SL client, and it’s from a group of SL users known as libsecondlife. But the thing is, that very name can still elicit snarls from many in the Second Life community, because late last year, members of the team released a content replication program called CopyBot, and CopyBot provoked a brief but riotous protest that threatened to cripple the internal economy. Read my take on it here. An open source Second Life will surely enable a potential army of CopyBots, as developers (some with malice, some with good but unwise intentions) create alternate clients which, when interacting with the rest of the world, cause grief and panic through the community at large. (“We expect the improvements to features and stability to overcome the negatives,” Ondrejka tells me, in response to that.)

Dying Netscape’s Noble Death?

The official announcement begins by comparing Linden’s move to what Netscape did (motivated by “acceptance of the inevitable or simple desperation”), when they opened the source to their browser, which led to a fruition of Web development.
For the very young who are reading this, some history: Netscape, you see, was a company that once dominated the browser market. Why sonny, did you know its IPO in 1995 launched the dot com boom? Yes they did. Now, however, its share of the browser market is less than 1%. So while it’s true the source code was a marvelous gift to the web’s growth, in retrospect it seems like a heroic sacrifice— great for the Internet, but not so great for the company that did it.
“No,” Cory tells me, in reply to that. “The point is that we aren’t Netscape, we are doing this from a position of strength.”
By this, he presumably means that Second Life dominates the market for user-created, immersively 3D online worlds in which users retain their IP. Actually, they dominate because they’re the only ones in that specific market, but at least three companies/projects— Multiverse, Raph Koster’s recently announced Areae, and the non-profit Open Croquet— are gunning for entry. And by domination, we really mean Second Life currently has 200,000-230,000 active users; not insignificant, and by some projections, this number will reach 1.6 million by this April. Still, a user base in the hundreds of thousands is something a successful MMORPG can capture in a matter of months (or in World of Warcraft’s case, days). It took Linden Lab over three years to reach that figure. Going open source will spur SL’s growth in the short term, but will surely undermine a collective sense of a unified world, which may, in turn, cause growth to plateau, or even worse, fragment.
Which leads us to the next point:

Building Babel?

The great thing about open source projects is they empower brilliant, iconoclastic developers to innovate and improve. The not so great thing about them is forking, wherein those cantankerous developers go off on their own to create code variations which ultimately become untranslatable to each other. (This is at least partly why a Linux OS has been a failure at market.)
Is this where Second Life is heading? Not one SL, but a variety of Second Lives, some not open to each other? The end of the utopian dream of one metaverse under FSM, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?
For Cory, theological questions like these will be suspended for the near term: “People won’t fork for a long time since they’ll need to stay in sync with the simulators,” he assures me. Which is also why it won’t affect the company’s revenue model: “It doesn’t impact revenues at all,” he says, “since you still need an account to log in.”
And so there it is: in the near future (i.e., at least the next few months), no immediate changes to the world, besides a renewed interest from coders eager to tinker with the way they interact with the world of Second Life.
Of course, when Ondrejka mentioned going open source only last month, it was couched in vague, “hopefully we will in 2007” terms. Either the company is accelerating their roadmap, or have been playing a canny game of underbet-bluff-show large all along. So now I wonder what other face cards they’re holding.
Because I can tell you this from personal experience: Cory Ondrejka is merciless at Texas Hold ‘Em.
Update, 1/9: On LL’s official blog, Ondrejka now has a status report on the open source initiative, expands on many of the topics mentioned above, and discusses other development issues.  Read it here.