Virtual World Population: 50 million by 2011

When technology analyst group Gartner recently asserted that “80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 companies) will have a ‘second life’, but not necessarily in Second Life” by 2011, a lot of people jumped the gun and assumed 8 out of 10 of all Net users would be in a virtual world in four short years. Not exactly, Gartner Chief of Research Steve Prentice tells us. “Firstly,” says Prentice, “this statement refers to ‘active’ Internet users– a subtlety missed in much of the subsequent reporting.”

Their actual estimate, as it turns out, is decidedly less expansive, but about as impressive, and that’s by conscious choice. The statement was meant, says Prentice, as “a wake-up call to the CIO and CEOS out there that this is not a game, just sort of messing around. It’s interesting [and] we think it’s going to big.”
By “active”, Gartner is referring to “people who are heavyweight Net users.” And by their definition, all of them are broadband users. “They’re my kids, to be honest, back from school, right onto MySpace.” That in mind, the estimate is actually that 50-60 million Net users will participate in a virtual world by 2011. “Doesn’t seem totally outrageous to me,” says Prentice.

Considering the largest existing worlds, including South Korea’s Cyworld, and its 20 million uniques, World of Warcraft with its 8 million subscribers, and Europe’s Habbo Hotel with its own 7 million regular users, that guess is actually on the conservative side. (While researching another story, Lisa Cosmas Hanson of Chinese game market analyst Niko Partners told me she estimates 26 million online world users by 2011 in China alone.)

To arrive at that figure, Prentice considered numerous variables, chief among them these five:

* Upward growth rates of existing worlds and social networks like MySpace.
* Usage patterns of current online world users (“Especially in the teen and young adult area…”)
* General computer game usage (Gartner cites a recent Entertainment Software Association report indicating that 69% of US head of households already play computer games.)
* Penetration and growth of Internet-enabled notebooks in this generation and spread of easily accessible wireless Internet.
* Involvement by major firms like IBM in virtual worlds, coupled to metaverse consulting groups to serve them there. (“[T]his reflects both a growing interest from their client base, and will result in growing pressures (and competencies) to accelerate the move by corporate users into the virtual worlds space.”)

Surprising to me at least, Prentice believes most virtual worlds of 2011 will not be console-based, and that they’ll primarily remain a PC-centric platform. But he thinks it’s possible we’ll see metaverses accessible through phones and PDAs by then. (“Never say never: people said they’d never watch movies on a phone, and they do.”)

Another surprise is that Prentice thinks none of the existing virtual worlds will dominate four years from now– hence the “‘second life’, but not necessarily in Second Life” qualification. At this point, he says, “Linden is [like] the AOL of the early Internet. The biggest ones don’t even exist yet.”