Just a few months ago, we were wondering if Second Life was going to become the AOL of online virtual worlds
. That is, a hot property that got lots of attention and early users, but too proprietary and eventually brought down by a much more open vision. Apparently, the folks at Linden Lab (makers of Second Life) agreed. They announced today that they are open sourcing the Second Life client software
, so anyone can make their own client side app. That, on its own, isn't all that exciting. In some ways, it's an admission that Second Life's client software really isn't the greatest. There are complaints that it's hard to use and somewhat buggy -- and that many people who sign up for a Second Life account never get very far, in part because of the nature of the software. What's much more interesting, though, is that Linden Lab also is planning to open source the server side
, though they don't say when. They apparently want to make the code more secure and stable before they do so, which makes sense. In theory, this could mean that people could set up entirely separate worlds using Second Life -- or, potentially, connect to the larger Second Life world, without having to pay Linden Lab for server hosting.
There certainly is a lot of potential for this to go beyond Linden Lab's little experiment, into something much bigger. There are, however, still plenty of big questions. It's not clear exactly what Linden Lab will do on the server side, and how they'll handle "peering" arrangements with others who set up their own virtual worlds. If done well, it becomes a 3D virtual extension of the internet. If done badly, it disappears pretty quickly. Also, the biggest challenge of all may just be getting people to use it. Most successful open source projects start out as open source. Attempts to take closed source projects and make them open source don't often work out well, in part because the software is often so messy
that it's better to just start over from scratch (which is more or less what happened with Netscape/Mozilla/Firefox). However, as that earlier article also noted, one of the things about software is that reinventing the wheel isn't very interesting. The question will simply be how usable Second Life's "wheel" really is.