Second Life: Open Source in 2007?

The announcement occured just before the final Christmas crush, so I wanted to make sure it wasn’t totally missed in the interim: during his last “town hall” appearance in Second Life, Cory Ondrejka, Chief Technology Officer for Linden Lab, the company behind SL, let loose this explosive news during his opening speech (and even reiterated it during the Q&A):

In the long run, this is why we’ve talked about wanting to be able to Open Source eventually. My hope is that in 2007 we’ll be able to get there.

That Second Life would go open source down the road isn’t news to longtime followers of the user-created online world: Linden Lab management have said as much during several previous public appearances. To my knowledge, however, this is the first time that this move has been fixed to a specific date (albeit tentative) and one that’s a lot sooner than most would have imagined.

But then, that shouldn’t be a surprise to longtime followers of user-created online worlds, either: with the open MMO platform Multiverse and now Raph Koster’s newly-announced MMO-meets-Web 2.0 Areae studio aiming to become Second Life’s first real competitors, going open source sooner rather than later would be a good way for Linden Lab to maintain the edge.

Of course, as with any Linden Lab announcement, there are caveats, the first of which can be parsed within the full context of Ondrejka’s speech:

Part of that process is learning how projects like libSL can be beneficial to all of Second Life. We should be thrilled that we’ve built an interesting enough set of technologies and communities that people want to tinker and explore. In the long run, this is why we’ve talked about wanting to be able to Open Source…

LibSL, or LibSecondLife, is a project by dedicated coders who are working to reverse engineer Second Life with Linden Lab’s explicit blessing. But in recent months, it’s also become anathema to many within the community of SL content creators, because members of the LibSL team created and publicly released the infamous “CopyBot” hack which caused a panic which briefly paralyzed the in-world economy. (CopyBot made it possible to “rip” the surface design of SL objects, causing avatar fashion designers and other content creators to worry that their Second Life business might be destroyed by a kind of 3D Napster.) Those worries quickly subsided, but you have to suspect it’ll take a serious amount of time for Linden Lab to prepare the community and allay their concerns, as they get ready to finally release SL’s source code into the wild.

And as they say in the military, “hope is not a plan”. After all, Linden Lab has also been hoping to upgrade the world’s outdated Havok 1 physics engine for nearly two years, but implementing that has been postponed so many times, the delay has become a running in-joke. (“Regarding Havok,” Ondrejka wryly mentioned during the same town hall, “we are once again considering how to use a version of Havok with a version number greater than 1. Stand by for more info Q1/Q2.”)

Those two caveats taken together, I’d say the chances of Second Life actually going open source next year are roughly 60%. After all, Ondrejka (full disclosure: a friend) is known to often roam Second Life as a Flying Spaghetti Monster avatar. And as dedicated Pastafarians already know, the FSM giveth– and the FSM taketh away.