Emerald abandons the metaverse?

Today I tried the new Emerald 2012 Beta Viewer, which is the successor to the latest release 1635. The first thing that I noticed is that the truly useless list of Linden grids is restored, with a long list of grids that nobody can access except Lindens for test purposes, apart from Agni (the main and teen grids) and Aditi (the beta test grid). The grid manager, which conveniently allows you to enter and save the details of OpenSim grids or your own grid if you’ve installed OpenSim on your own server, is now gone. It enabled you to switch easily between Second Life and other grids (and is still part of Imprudence). Nowhere on their blog, where Modular Systems talk at length about the new beta Emerald viewer, is this mentioned at all.

They do mention, however, that they’ve removed the useful IRC function, and the lesser known GreenLife Utility Stream, which is really just for developers and LSL coders. But IRC works on independent servers and doesn’t affect SL at all, so the only reason for removing it would be that LL dislike it and have insisted that TPV compliant viewers remove it, whatever users may want. There is no reason for this at all as far as impact on their servers is concerned, as the connection is purely between viewer and remote IRC server. But it tends to promote the open source metaverse and information about it, so they have decided that it conflicts with their commercial interests. How many times have we seen this before? Second Life is treated as a fiefdom, and residents more like serfs than customers. You may have a legitimate business in SL, but only until Linden Lab changes the rules for its benefit. I hope that Emerald put IRC back, as they do say they have removed it “temporarily” – but they don’t say why. I hope that they have simply forgotten to mention that the grid manager is likewise only temporarily missing.

So I tried entering the URI osgrid.org:8002 in the box instead, which normally works on all viewers based on Linden code that do not have the grid manager that you can find in Hippo, the soon-to-be-defunct Rainbow Viewer and Imprudence, as well as until now in Emerald. But the default grid selector failed! Without telling anybody, Emerald have removed the ability to use their viewer in the so-called “local” grids, i.e. any OpenSim compatible grid. I really hope that this was accidental.

The default functionality was never convenient anyway compared to the grid manager. You couldn’t save grid details and had to remember the URI and port number and enter it each time (each OpenSim grid may use a different port, although typically standalones use 9000 and grid mode uses 8002 by default, and people often stick to this convention). There is a quite short character limit so I can’t use it with my own grid because the URI is simply too long. For this reason I can’t use Kirsten’s Viewer in my grid, even though it is super efficient and lag-free and seems to put far lower demands on the sim. That means I have to set up a copy of the viewer (on Mac OSX) to use the command line option for each grid (this is somewhat easier in Windows where you can use shortcuts). I can only presume that this still works in Emerald. I sincerely hope that Modular Systems have only accidentally introduced the bug, rather than deliberately, or else intend to restore the grid manager and are merely basing this version on  newer branch of LL code that naturally doesn’t have it in the first place. If not, the removal of the grid manager could only be taken as a signal of their intent to support only Second Life.

You will notice of course that the equally useful export function (only for items that you have full permissions on AND for which you are listed as the original creator, a far higher bar than that set by Second Inventory) was removed in release 1634, for the same reasons as IRC. The TPV compliance policy is effectively a kind of blackmail: either do as LL say or do no business in SL, where the majority of the users still are. There is no IPR reason, as the viewer protects this. LL simply seek to force us to keep our content inside SL, even if we are the creators: it is a restraint of trade, and monopolistic trading. They behave like Microsoft, (or perhaps even worse, to be fair to Microsoft who have recently supported a few open source projects).  But increasingly the approach only pushes people over to OpenSim instead, the exact opposite of what they intend. At present, the encrypted chat remains in both 1635 and 2012 Beta, although LL have signalled their dislike of this too. For how long, I wonder, will it remain? Why should we not have privacy? It’s ludicrous: HTTPS is not considered immoral, is critical to safety on the Web, and it works in exactly the same way! Emerald, to be fair to them, are between a rock and a hard place.

This return to supporting the Lab’s walled garden approach has been coming for a long time. In succeeding releases right up until the current 1635, Modular Systems have failed to fix the simple bug in Emerald that makes avatars fail to rezz, only appearing as the gas cloud, despite it being a very simple one to fix. Effectively that made Emerald usable only in Second Life, and not in OpenSim, although you could at least log in if you were doing limited maintenance stuff, and others could see you, though you couldn’t see yourself. Why? So that you can’t use it except in Second Life? It certainly looks that way. If it isn’t true, why can’t they fix it quickly and reassure us that Modular Systems still supports the metaverse? I urge them to do so.

So the stitch-up that the Lab carried out in effectively ending the open sourcing of their viewer code as far as accessing their own grid is concerned has been supported tacitly by Modular Systems. Lots of great viewers like the Rainbow Viewer have had to issue their final versions. Some like the Cool VL Viewer are not in the third-party viewer directory. Very few have remained, and this impacts upon OpenSim more than it does on Second Life. Only Imprudence, Emerald and Kirsten’s viewers remain of the great third party SL viewers, and this puts them in a position of legal peril that the Lab could exploit, responsible for everything that is done with their viewer. The TPV policy is in breach of the GPL licence under which the code was released, to the fury of the hard-working viewer developers who have given us so much.

Many people have cancelled their SL accounts and moved to OpenSim grids. I will not do so, but LL must be aware that all the control freakery damages relations with us, their customers, and drastically limits their business in future. I’m still very grateful for all the the Lab gave us in open sourcing the viewer in the first place, which has led to the creation of the OpenSim compatible metaverse in the first place. They still have my good will – for the moment – even if they are gradually withdrawing theirs. It seems that the actions of Modular Systems in recent work on their previously excellent Emerald Viewer shows that they are complicit in this, albeit perhaps out of necessity rather than choice.

Now that Emerald has removed so much, there is only a little point using it over the standard viewer. All that remains is breadcrumbs from their excellent work in improving the viewer: just a few bits and bobs that were of relatively marginal use anyway. It is not the fastest viewer, nor is it now the most flexible for the whole metaverse, not just SL.

So far, Imprudence have – relatively speaking – held out against the blackmail. They have disabled a part of their export function involving textures when connecting to Second Life, even though it already had the IPR defences described above. But given that they are now responsible for what their users do in SL, how long can they remain? They already had to issue a statement saying that they would have to withdraw from SL, which happily they were later able to retract.

It strikes me that Emerald, Imprudence and others are being forced into this position by Linden Lab because the Lab are afraid that their business approach is unsustainable and are trying to batten down the hatches. They have seen OpenSim mature into a mature ecosystem of interoperating businesses, including support for currency and, with it, a creative economy. Some grids operate entirely non-commercially and that is fine. Others offer services. Users can go where they like. Linden Lab are unwilling to compete on a fair and level playing field, despite the massive head start that they inevitably have from being the first in the business and holding a huge reserve of technical experience in reserve. If they chose to allow people to travel to and from other grids, they would remain by far the biggest providers of services. They could do it tomorrow but will not. Instead, they force others like Modular Systems into subservience and so remove the fruits of that labour from their own customers.

Open Currency for OpenSim

Since February there has been a currency system for OpenSim grids, provided by VirWox:

2010-02-26: Expanding to the OpenSim Hypergrid

Today we start trading the Open Metaverse Currency (OMC) for EUR, USD, and SLL. The OMC is a virtual currency intended to be used across the OpenSim Hypergrid. At the start, two OpenSim grids have adoped the OMC: GermanGrid and Grid4Us. [ed.: others have joined since then – and they are not all German ones! 🙂 See the VirWox site for details.]

[Later note: although SLL is conventionally the abbreviation for the Sierra Leonian Leone currency, it is here meant to mean the Second Life Linden Dollar ™! Phew…! 😉 There are terminals similar to XStreet terminals in SL and presumably in the other participating grids. British Pounds and Swiss Francs are also now supported, as noted here.]

What is impressive about this is that, if you have a private grid or don’t have an avatar in one of the participating grids, you can still buy goods and services. It is effectively PayPal for virtual worlds, since PayPal suffers from the problem that even its micro-payment accounts charge far too much to make them commercially worthwhile. Virtual worlds effectively require nano-payments! There has been some work done on PayPal implementation, however, and some usage nevertheless.

So, the question is, will the first entrant into the market, as effectively the metaverse’s first banker and the virtual world’s first banker after Linden Labs, be the dominant or only player? Will people trust them? The answer to the latter question should be, I feel, a provisional yes. Obviously, this will depend on the usual factors, in determining whether sufficient people trust them, mostly how they operate and deal with customers. But so many people trust Linden Lab without questioning much whether or not they should. Unlike LL, VirWox are only a currency. So they have considerably less conflict of interest. Unlike LL, who shut down in-world businesses like banks and gambling – whatever one’s personal view of those operations may be – when they are no longer in its commercial interests to support and/or tolerate.

After hypergrid, this may be the main factor in OpenSim overtaking Second Life ™ in 2010-11. Being an open metaverse, there is obviously much opportunity for unscrupulous grid operators and content theft. But I ask you, how well is this really avoided in Second Life? Are Linden Lab really very effective at dealing with it? The answer is, no. This is the Web, and it happens. That does not mean you have to run and hide, or that you can’t do business. In the real world, you are responsible for managing your own copyright and not infringing others. The virtual world is just another part of the real world, and the same law applies to all.

As a footnote to this, expect good things from Simian Grid from the Open Metaverse Foundation, which from OpenSim 0.7 will be fully compatible and supported as an alternative PHP back end with lots of useful features and web site integration. It needs hypergrid support and some other features, but these are on the way. Simian Grid suffers from poor documentation, as it’s still at pre-release alpha stage, and – to be frank – rather a poor name! But you may not even see the difference from in-world, except perhaps good performance (it’s alleged) and better web site integration, on-line inventory management (WebDAV) and more.