Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

The Economics of Information: Pwnage on the Geek Scale

There have been mixed reactions around Second Life to the Linden announcement that the SL client would be released as Open Source. Some don’t understand it. Some fear that it will only provide another avenue for griefing or account hacking. Others have siezed upon the announcement as another soapbox opportunity to make asses of themselves by revealing their complete ignorance of what this change means to us.

The official Linden explanation is two parts corporate-speak and one part meaningful fact: the hyperbole about “richer communication channels”, buzzwords about “ecosystem” and “compelling experience” are what I call “BayAreaspeak”, having lived there for a couple of years. What is truly important is under their heading of “Security”. Ironically, the verbiage they use here is nearly identical to the words my head IT guy spoke when I asked his opinion of Open Source software:

This move will eventually increase the security of Second Life since there are now more people looking at the code, highlighting potential exploits and providing bug fixes and updates.

My IT guy, Mike, was talking about Linux. In his opinion, the Linux operating system is hands-down superior to Microsoft Windows for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that the Linux community has been extremely quick to identify and patch security loopholes. (Mike cited worrisome numbers – of some 300 reported bugs and security loopholes in Windows last year, Redmond patched a little more than 100). You have a thousand heads working on something from a thousand different perspectives, and I’d warrant you’ll spot things that fifty programmers inside a tight corporate structure, working under the unified corporate change control process, will never see.

Personally, I think the parallel between the Linden move and the Linux vs. Windows war is a very appropriate one. Microsoft has a death grip on the Windows OS. Their business practices have been exhaustively reported-upon in the past, when antitrust lawsuits revealed their bullying practices of forcing their software on computer manufacturers. If you want “elitist” control over software, just follow the Microsoft plan. Build a proprietary system and force users toward your product, regardless of its swiss cheese security and self-bloating internal processes. If you want an example of a case that has destroyed the advantages of free enterprise and innovation, look no further than Microsoft Windows.

Then there is Microsoft’s Digital Rights Management scheme. From ZDNet (publishers of PC Magazine and other popular computer publications):

By providing free use of the DRM technology and the accompanying toolkit, Microsoft hopes to make Windows Media audio and video formats more popular with record labels and eventually consumers. The strategy follows marginally successful partnerships with device makers and content creators designed to further the adoption of the format.

Sounds ok, does it? Just another marketing plan? Can you spell “monopoly”?

Giving DRM technology away for free–particularly a version that’s as good as Microsoft’s–also makes it that much more difficult for other companies to compete. Already, for example, RealNetworks has found it difficult to sell its server-based content creation and streaming software when Microsoft bundles Windows Media technologies for free with Windows 2000 Server and the forthcoming Windows 2003 Server.

Translation: Open Source is the kryptonite of huge, bullying monopolies. It is the antidote for lethargic corporate policies on spyware and a spark that can feed free enterprise and innovation — not to mention it can make sophisticated professional software available to Joe Computeruser for little or nothing. It’s the penicillin against elitism, contrary to what a couple of ignorant agitators may want you to believe.

So how does that relate to Linden Lab and the Second Life client? Simply this: by releasing the client as Open Source and allowing creative programmers to build custom variations of the client, the Lab has acknowledged the advantages of open distribution, the cost efficiencies of allowing other programmers to do the grunt work (as opposed to, say, doubling their own programming staff) and set a course away from the arch-controlling monopolistic domination that Microsoft has in the larger world of software products. In a nutshell, it’s a move of genius. Linden Lab wins, Second Life citizens win, everybody wins.

To continue my analogies to the larger world of software publication, let’s ask another important question: What in the history of Open Source concepts has demonstrated that it is a viable concept? What successes have come from Open Source projects? This is an easy one:

The Firefox browser and its email sister, Thunderbird, are both Open Source products of Mozilla — direct competitors of MSIE and Outlook. I’ve been using Firefox for a couple of years, and I’m addicted to tabbed browsing. Over 20 million copies of Firefox have been downloaded since it was published. I love not worrying about the worms and browser hijackers that infected my MS Internet Explorer so many times. Firefox is to IE as a new Cadillac is to a 1968 Volkswagen. And it’s free.

I was faced with a minor need to use an Access database some time ago, and was pointed to Open Office – an Open Source version of Microsoft Office suite. It not only does the same job, but it has innovative features that Microsoft hasn’t gotten around to yet.

Can’t quite swing the $600 or more for a new copy of Photoshop CS? Try GIMP, a free Open Source variation on the same graphics program.

I mentioned Linux already – but it deserves more in-depth discussion. Linux is not one product produced by one company. It is a suite of tools that are produced in a dizzying number of variations by a large and passionate community. Find something that doesn’t work well? Download a tool to fix it. Want to run a Windows application that chokes if you run it “native” under Linux? No problem – Linux will also run Windows as a sub-application. How cool is that? It’s pwnage on the Geek Scale: make Windows your slave. Tired of bugs and bloat and Microsoft’s refusal to respond to security problems? Linux may be your answer. Not keen on getting so deep into something so technical? Easy – get yourself a copy of PCLinuxOS. I’m planning on doing this before Vista comes out. It’s my own personal rebellion against the true elitists – those monopolists in Redmond. I’m certainly no technical geek – I’m a business manager. But I’m not adverse to learning and that’s all it takes to cope with change.

Open Source doesn’t just involve computer software, though. The concept has spread into the business world. The idea is that open sharing of information does not harm the sharing host — in the long run it actually helps through spreading interest in a product or idea, creating a passionate user community and spurring innovation. Look no further than Wikipedia for a great example of how open information sharing can be a boon that spreads far beyond the narrow borders of the original idea. A million minds feeding one idea — the implications are breath-taking.

Wired Magazine: Open Source Everywhere

But software is just the beginning. Open source has spread to other disciplines, from the hard sciences to the liberal arts. Biologists have embraced open source methods in genomics and informatics, building massive databases to genetically sequence E. coli, yeast, and other workhorses of lab research. NASA has adopted open source principles as part of its Mars mission, calling on volunteer “clickworkers” to identify millions of craters and help draw a map of the Red Planet. There is open source publishing: With Bruce Perens, who helped define open source software in the ’90s, Prentice Hall is publishing a series of computer books open to any use, modification, or redistribution, with readers’ improvements considered for succeeding editions. There are library efforts like Project Gutenberg, which has already digitized more than 6,000 books, with hundreds of volunteers typing in, page by page, classics from Shakespeare to Stendhal; at the same time, a related project, Distributed Proofreading, deploys legions of copy editors to make sure the Gutenberg texts are correct. There are open source projects in law and religion. There’s even an open source cookbook.

Change can be scary. That’s part of human nature. And I’m sure much of the negative reaction to this move by Linden Lab is based on fear, especially from those who don’t understand what “Open Source” means. Change is twice as scary when it’s beyond your comprehension. But maybe this will help:

Open Source Definition

What if you had the right to get a free upgrade whenever your software needed it? What if, when you switched from a Mac to a PC, you could switch software versions for free? What if, when the software doesn’t work or isn’t powerful enough, you can have it improved or even fix it yourself? What if the software was still maintained even if the company that produced it went out of business? What if you can use your software on your office workstation, and your home desktop computer, and your portable laptop, instead of just one computer? You’d probably still be using the software you paid for years ago. These are some of the rights that Open Source gives you.

The Open Source Definition is a bill of rights for the computer user. It defines certain rights that a software license must grant you to be certified as Open Source. Those who don’t make their programs Open Source are finding it difficult to compete with those who do, as users gain a new appreciation of rights they always should have had. Programs like the Linux operating system and Netscape’s web browser have become extremely popular, displacing other software with more restrictive licenses. Companies that use Open Source software have the advantage of its very rapid development, often by several collaborating companies, and much of it contributed by individuals who simply need an improvement to serve their own needs.

The volunteers who made products like Linux possible are only there, and the companies are only able to cooperate, because of the rights that come with Open Source. The average computer programmer would feel stupid if he put lots of work into a program, only to have the owner of the program sell his improvement without giving anything back. Those same programmers feel comfortable contributing to Open Source because they are assured of these rights:

  • The right to make copies of the program, and distribute those copies.
  • The right to have access to the software’s source code, a necessary preliminary before you can change it.
  • The right to make improvements to the program.

These rights are important to the software contributor because they keep all contributors at the same level relative to each other. Everyone who wants to is allowed to sell an Open Source program, so prices will be low and development to reach new markets will be rapid. Anyone who invests the time to build knowledge in an Open Source program can support it, and this provides users with the option of providing their own support, or the economy of a number of competing support providers. Any programmer can tailor an Open Source program to specific markets in order to reach new customers. People who do these things aren’t compelled to pay royalties or license fees.

The reason for the success of this somewhat communist-sounding strategy, while the failure of communism itself is visible around the world, is that the economics of information are fundamentaly different from those of other products. There is very little cost associated with copying a piece of information like a computer program. The electricity involved costs less than a penny, and the use of the equipment not much more. In comparison, you can’t copy a loaf of bread without a pound of flour.

If you can get your head around all this, or at the very least around the one salient fact that Open Source is a Good Thing ™ for us consumers, then like me you begin to understand how so many of Linden Lab’s decisions in the last year have been moving inexorably toward this watershed. Be it Philip’s statement that he wants to do less TOS enforcement and move that ability to users through tools; or the decision to do away with registration requirements and make the Second Life client a free download to everyone; or the overall trend of late to push the world of Second Life back onto us, the citizens — the responsibilities should be ours along with the creativity and the priveleges of Intellectual Property. Our ability to control our own destiny just received a big injection of adrenaline with the move to Open Source.

“Your world, your imagination” was beginning to sound very hollow, but that’s about to change. It’s also going to be our client, our imagination. Imagine a User Interface (UI) that’s easier to maneuver for roleplaying games, combat sims, or just plain old walking around. Imagine being able to change your keyboard layout to whatever you prefer – like you can already do in hundreds of other online games. Imagine having fully configurable and movable IM windows around your viewer, set however you wish. Imagine all the marvelous things we might see in the near future now that the Second Life client has been released to the user community. Wasn’t it about time?


January 12, 2007 - Posted by | Second Life


  1. Something I’d like to point out is open source isn’t communist at all…it’s much more an expression of a free market is than anything to do with microsoft! Free markets don’t function very well when monopolies exist and any piece of software protected by draconian license agreements and extensive software patents is part of a monopoly…or at least the parent company is trying to make one by stifling competition by exploiting the legal system.

    For the most part I’m excited about the new and better client software that we’ll be seeing before long but I do have one nagging fear and that’s based on SL’s economy being based mostly on a DRM that prevents the copying and editing of any ‘products’ we don’t want copied or edited. Personally I’ve often found this frustrating…it prevents me from fixing up seams in new clothing that isn’t quite right or collaboratively working on a building project. On the other hand I make most of my $L through the very same system. What I wonder is what will happen when this DRM gets broken…I don’t doubt that it will eventually now (dispute that if you will but I’d put that in a predictions registry if there was one) with the client open source and the Lindens saying that the server may be open source sometime in the future….and that’s a bit scary because the loss of our DRM is going to be a big change…and just the fear that we might lose it caused a lot of fuss not long ago with all that copybot nonsense.

    Comment by Estella Jimenez | January 13, 2007 | Reply

  2. Oh and to add a bit more…

    SL could still have a functional content creation economy without the DRM but it would be very different. Currently I sell a new dress for 200 $L or so and overtime I’ll gradually sell many copies of it, no one else can sell copies of it so eventually I’ll get enough to make it worth the development cost (me spending a few nights in photoshop instead of something else). Without the DRM I wouldn’t be able to do that because the first few copies I sell will start breeding more copies…so how am I to make enough $L to be worth working on the new dress to start with? Easy…I control the entry point…the first copy I have total control over and the supply is limited to one until I give away or sell that first copy. So I sell that first copy for a lot of $L…maybe 10,000. Then the person who buys it can put it up in her shop with lots of traffic and sell many copies for less than that. Then those people who might not have land can hand out copies to their friends for free. Maybe someone will come along and take the image file out of SL and put it through photoshop to fix a glitch I made or change it around a bit….then uploads the changes and sells an improved version of my dress.

    Anyway…there’s still plenty of chances to make money even without the DRM, and it might even make things easier for new players. I’ve even seen this happen to some degree in SL with the animation and texture market. Animations and textures for builders are worthless without full permissions but people still seem to do quite well selling textures and animations with the DRM turned off. It seems to be worth paying out for large areas of land at least. I don’t think we’ll be hearing of any full permissions texture shop owners quitting their day jobs but they must be making enough to offset land teir…and that’s a sign of success in my book.

    Comment by Estella Jimenez | January 13, 2007 | Reply

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