Virtual Growing PainsBy David F. Carr | Posted 03-01-2007
The news that drew a crowd to Second Life's Town Hall meeting on Jan. 9 was the announcement from Linden Lab, the company that runs the virtual world, that it would release the Second Life viewer as open-source software. This means programmers outside the company's employ will have a chance to improve the graphics rendering, fix bugs, improve performance and develop specialized versions of the viewer for specific audiences, such as professors teaching courses within the virtual world. If that goes well, Linden is talking about also open sourcing the server software that simulates the existence of the world these avatars share.
Now Second Life "residents," as users of the system are called, want to know exactly how the open source plan is going to work. Many are excited. Some are upset. Prokofy Neva (the creation of Catherine Fitzpatrick, a Russian translator and human rights activist), who's in the virtual real estate business, is concerned about the long-term impact of open sourcing, particularly the idea that it could undermine land values and property rights.
That is, if anyone can run their own Second Life simulation server, won't that mean that the supply of land will explode and prices will plummet? And even before that happens, the open sourcing of the client raises the possibility of alternate viewers that won't respect the restrictions that content creators place on whether their objects can be copied, modified or transferred to other users. Protecting property rights is important because some residents have learned how to make money selling their digital creations.
Others are worried that releasing the source code will make it easier for hackers to create rogue viewers indistinguishable from the official one. Such a tool would allow them to create robot avatars that pose as real users, undermining the online society, or to overload servers with denial-of-service attacks.
When the event begins. Cory Linden, a.k.a. chief technology officer Cory Ondrejka, explains that releasing the client software as open source was a surrender to the inevitable, since independent developers had already created a series of software libraries that duplicate functions of the official Second Life client. That software was created independently, without the use of Linden source code, through a process of reverse engineering (working backward from the known functionality of the official client to produce software that behaves similarly), Ondrejka says.