Long Road Behind, Long Road Ahead – by Philip Linden

Our mission is: “To connect everyone to an online world that improves the human condition.” Though work at Linden Lab can be hard and sometimes frustrating (and this week is certainly no exception with its downtimes), it is inspiring to pursue such a goal. What is interesting is that we recently changed the wording of this statement. The old version said “Create an online world having the exceptional property that it advances the capabilities of the many people that use it, and by doing so affects and transforms them in a positive way.” The difference between these two statements of mission isn’t huge, but I think important in looking at our history and then looking at how we need to change in the future to best fulfill that mission. Let me give you some thoughts on that.

I started Linden Lab in 1999 with the dream of finally being able to create an online world that was truly an alternate reality – a place where you could do anything. I had been thinking about this general idea for a long time, because as a kid I was always dreaming up things I wanted to build that were difficult, expensive, or impossible to create in the real world. And along with being creative, I was also very into computers and science. So in my mind, the ultimate thing you could do possibly do with computers was to simulate reality – to create a place where you can make anything you can imagine and share it with others.

Although I started thinking a lot about both the simulation and interface technologies to build Second Life in the late 80’s when I was in college, my hunch was that networks and computers weren’t fast enough to make something that could really be appealing to a lot of people. But in 1999, all that changed with the rise of broadband and the introduction of the first cheap, generalized 3D cards. So I found our first little office in a warehouse in San Francisco, convinced our very first employee to take a break from his PhD work in physics, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Anyway, back to that mission statement. In the beginning, it was pretty clear that actually demonstrating that a virtual world could be compelling was going to be a big, hard problem. It was very difficult to raise money or hire people, because no one really understood what we were doing. Also, we figured (correctly) that this was a very large software project, and that if we tried to carefully design it all up front, we wouldn’t even come close to getting something working before we ran out of money. So we were a classic ‘lab’, in both name and behavior. We worked very fast and were very focused on getting enough of the system working so that people would be able to see what we had been dreaming about. Now, 8 years later, I think we have clearly passed that test. We have managed to create a virtual world with the magical properties that we all knew were possible. If Linden Lab were to disappear tomorrow, this work would still go on. The rocket is lit. Virtual worlds are finally real.

So what should come next? Taking a look at the last few years, we’ve gotten many of the critical features working and scaled the world just enough for people to believe. We have managed to create the first really viable virtual world, but how can we be relevant in the future? Our goal initially was to quickly make things work… for example avatar animation, a scripting language, buying land, or voice. But now we seem to have reached a point where the rapid addition of capabilities is no longer the key challenge, and indeed can be counterproductive. So we sat down and thought about this together, and concluded that the first mission statement was complete, and that we needed both another mission statement and probably a different way of doing things. That change came at about the same time I stood up at the SLCC conference wearing a “Missing Image” T-shirt (sadly I’m sure most of you get the joke) and talked about how all too often Linden Lab is now simply ‘in the way’. In the way of you creating your Second Life, or having a collaborative meeting, or keeping your virtual business running. I promised that we were listening, and that we would change from being a ‘lab’ trying to bring SL to life into a company that keeps SL growing and scaling until everyone in the world is online. See how that all goes together?

Looking back at the last year or so we’ve seen lots of challenges, and I think, though they’ve been hard, we’ve been able to weather them: Second Life has grown enormously faster than our systems have been able to support, we collected European VAT charges in a clumsy way, we restricted different types of activities to comply with the law and our own principles, and we suffered through far too much downtime and instability. But we’ve also started to change in the way I had promised in September. Our downtimes have been lower for September and October than during the summer, we have done a better job communicating and handling the release process, we’ve identified and fixed some sources of content loss, and have a solid plan and work underway for substantially reducing both client and server crashing in Q4 and Q1. It may sometimes seem like we are not listening, but I can tell you that we are. We are changing, for the better, and I think, for a company of almost 250 people, we are doing it faster than expected.

Looking ahead, some thoughts. As I mentioned above, our weakest link is now clearly crashing (both client and server), and we are going to very substantially reduce it over the next two quarters. Our update to our physics engine, which is now in beta testing, is one visible example and will hopefully greatly decrease server crashing. Stability is what we’ve got to be all about in the first half of 2008, at the cost of other work. Beyond stability, there is one new platform feature that still seems really important to deploy given the rising use of SL for education and collaboration, and that is being able to browse the web easily from in-world. So we have a small team of people working hard on that right now.

Looking further out, three things: First, We need to seriously reconsider how the UI and more broadly the user experience for SL works, especially for new users. We aren’t there yet in terms of the interface for virtual worlds. There is now a small new internal team doing nothing else, so expect real progress. Second, we need to keep opening SL up, as we’ve started talking about lately. This means formats, source code, partners, and more. We are working on turning our clear vision on this into more detailed plans. Virtual worlds, in their broadest form, will be more pervasive that the web, and that means that their systems will need to be open: extended and operated by many people and companies, not just us. Third, we need to create new and different ways to communicate more often and more clearly with the community. For my part, I will start writing monthly blog posts like this to let you know about some of things that are on my mind.

If by chance you are still reading this and feeling like you didn’t get enough value or inspiration for your time, how about if I you just watch this video, or this one, both created by Robbie Dingo. I’ve already watched that first one about 100 times. Thanks very much for listening.

Long Road Behind, Long Road Ahead 2007.11.22

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