Second Life, the big and overhyped virtual reality community has released the source code for its client under the GPL open source licence. (See reports – Boing Boing, developer’s blog, official release, official blog) This is something really big, it means that it is now viable to build a fully-fledged, free-standing, world-class virtual reality world without having to own or licence a bunch of proprietary code.
I started thinking about this the other day when I was reading a post on Ethan Zuckerman’s blog which linked to a YouTube video. In the video, the disembodied voice of Ethan gives one of America’s leading legal thinkers what we in Ireland would call a ‘bollicking’ for signing a deal with Linden Labs to participate in Second Life. Charlie Nesson takes the criticism quite well, but obviously, he must have had some knowledge of SL’s plans to liberate its source code.
So Ethan has written today about this announcement, and complained that only the client software has been released, but that the server software is still properietary. I think that Ethan is moaning. Linden has met the community half-way here, and they deserve to be thanked for their generosity, not chided for being cheap. (Although I think Ethan is wrong to be so skeptical, he points out important issues that an open-source virtual world is going to have to deal with.)
I think the next step is up to the community. As well as working on the client, we should get working to develop a server of our own.
Where would this go next? I think we could see virtual worlds going in the direction of the World Wide Web. The Web is tied together by clients which are built to fairly standard specs, but which can connect to a wide variety of data sources (websites) which are all arranged and managed in very different ways.
So the model would change from the current Second Life model, where the owners, Linden Labs essentially sublet space on their systems to their customers (a little like the old Prestel or Minitel systems that came before the Internet) to a model where there are many independently run, independently owned spaces. That doesn’t mean that everyone will want to build their own space (anymore than everyone wants to have their own mailserver) but it does mean that people will have a choice of where they want to ‘reside’ online. It’s like having a choice of ways and companies who will look after your email for you.
So anyway, I think this is a great opportunity. Blaze a trail. Discover a whole new world. For that matter, build a whole new world …
You realize, I hope, that a good bit of my exchange with Charlie was performance – Charlie’s teaching style was a very performative one, and I wouldn’t have gone after most of America’s top legal scholars in quite the same way.
My hopes are the same as yours, Antoin – I’d like to see people building servers independent of the Linden servers, and building a multiplicity of interconnected worlds. But that’s not what I see in this announcement – the decision to open source the client and not the server signals something different to me – a desire to get help building the “free” part of the Linden network and to keep the paying part.
I agree that it’s probably possible to write a server based on what we know about the protocol from the client code. There’s no guarantee that Linden wouldn’t change the protocol to break the client and server if someone did so, as DeWitt pointed out on a comment on my blog. And I’m very interested to think through the legal issues surrounding building a server like this… in fact, I’ll start by asking Charlie what he thinks about it. 🙂