Ode to Interoperability
For those of you who were not at the Virtual Worlds 2007 Conference and Expo last week, there were a number of announcements by ourselves and others that were not product specific in nature, but rather more focused on overall industry development.First among those was the launch of the Metaverse Market Index (MMI), which is an effort spearheaded by Nick Wilson at Metaversed and Prof. Robert Bloomfield at Cornell University. The MMI is an organization that was recently developed by and for the industry to track adoption, economies and use activity of virtual worlds. This is an important step in the maturation of the industry, as we move beyond early vendor-specific approaches to measuring the market to a more industry-common measure. This will clear up any ambiguity for people outside of the industry when trying to separate fact from hype, as well as allow people within the industry with a common yardstick (meter-stick for those not in the coalition of the metrically challenged) by which to monitor the growth of the industry.Next, and possibly more contentious, is the notion of the Virtual World Interoperability Forum. This requires a bit more elaboration……There have been discussions going on within the game-driven virtual world community for many many years to determine what level of interoperability, if any, these platforms need to share. Obviously, there is considerably less motivation for me to take my Halo soldier into WarHawk, or my World of Warcraft character into an Entropia Universe-based game, as it disrupts the narrative. Two of the critical elements of these games is suspension of disbelief and immersion, which is interrupted by the injection of non-narrative-consistent elements into the gameflow. This is a valid rationale to keep these environments as walled-gardens, and the business models around these worlds are about customer retention and subscriptions.This is less true when you contrast non-game-driven platforms such as Second Life, Forterra, Proton Media and Kaneva, which are more general purpose and are being increasingly adopted as a shared workspace for social, B2C and B2B collaboration. In this case, you do not have a Tolkienesque world populated by Orcs and Elves disrupted by a Powerpoint presentation on next month’s forecasts, but the ability for enterprises and individuals to choose their best-suited home domain and then seamlessly move from administrative-domain to administrative-domain based on the task at hand. I can’t help but take a network -centric perspective and compare this to Intranets, Extranets and the Internet. Some times I transact business within my own administrative domain (M&A discussions come to mind), some times I need to include a trusted development partner, and sometimes the use case is a public forum. It is unrealistic to assume that the entire industry will fit cleanly into one business model (Web based vs. Thick-client) or that one world platform has both the physics necessary for medical or meteorological simulations and is also the optimal business virtual shared workspace platform simultaneously. There will be, as there is for the Web ecosystem as well as social networking sites specifically, different tools for different jobs.What I am most interested in is interoperability between these different tools, knowing that we will have them. If I have an optimized public environment where we have an active conversation with our customers and partners, it would be best to have that interface cleanly and transparently with my enterprise collaboration platform that I use for engineering collaborative development so I can seamlessly shift between the two as I do today with my web browser. To anticipate the next point, which is ‘why dont you use the former exclusively for your internal collaboration?’, the answer is that in some cases you legally cannot. If you have logging of IM and possibly voice as well, as is the case with Second Life, then I am violating Non-Disclosure agreements if I discuss a partner development effort with another Cisco employee within Second Life, as I just disclosed it to the Linden Labs chat logs. If they access those is irrelevant, I have disclosed the information to a third party. If they didn’t log that information, then we have secondary questions about datacenter security to discuss. This is where WebEx has an advantage, as they are able to securely compartmentalize customer interactions within each company’s administrative domain.To bring this back to the WIIFY (“What’s in it for you?”), the benefit to business of interoperability is that you have freedom of choice to pick a provider of the environment that best suits your use case (simulation, training, collaboration, etc.) without it being segregated from the benefits of the network-effect of the Internet and the many tens of thousands of active users of other virtual worlds. It doesn’t have to be an ‘either-or’ decision, with all of the risk of sunk development costs shouldered by the customer, but rather ‘and also’ as the platform you choose can interact with other virtual world platforms.This is probably a good a time as any to point out the elephant in the room, which is outside data. When we talk about these virtual worlds, we discuss them as some other place distinct and separate from The Great Conversation (to appropriate a great Clifton Fadiman phrase) we call the Internet. This is an error of reasoning in my opinion, as it assumes that the platform is what is central to the conversation versus the content. Where is the value derived, in the platform itself and how it handles the physics of wind and tree leaves, or in the content you are receiving in the form of collaboration with other individuals and the contextually relevant data you are discussing? Obviously, the latter.So why today is it so highly lauded when a virtual world succeeds in importing existing data from outside their world? Why wasn’t this permeability between virtual worlds and useful data planned from day one? I think this is an artifact from the gaming side of the VW family tree, as you were disincented to disrupt the Middle Earth narrative and business model by interfacing with Amazon or Netflix or Credit Suisse. This is the opposite when you talk about a general purpose virtual shared workspace, as you can only talk with another human for so long before you want to point or reference something pertinent to the conversation.This is a key component of interoperability, which is interoperability with the rest of the world. Virtual Worlds should not be some ‘otherplace’ which requires immigration of outside datastores one shipload at a time, but rather an overlay collaboration environment that leverages the vast corpus of the Internet.The rest of the minutiae of interoperability, be it in avatars or polygons, is important but not the big WIIFY. I am only partially concerned that the appearance of my avatar be the same in the public and private domains, but I am concerned that whichever representation of me that is best suited for the environment inherits the entitlements and policy/privileges that my identity allows me. That can even include, as is explicit in the OpenID model, anonymity with entitlements.One other carry-over from the entertainment domain is the concept of virtual currencies. If we have just painstakingly killed a dragon, we are not going to want to denominate the booty in Euros or Swiss Francs, but in the gold pieces consistent with the game narrative. Conversely, If we are consummating a multi-year consulting agreement, we wont want to denominate the contract in Lindens or There-bucks. By continuing to perpetuate virtual currencies in general-purpose worlds used for business, we are adding a layer of complexity (and distraction) that is unnecessary. The WIIFY of virtual currencies is whatever is easiest for your transaction. If that means you have to pay VAT on negligible in-world transactions because sovereigns have not yet determined the proper taxation regime for virtual worlds, it is going to discourage serious commerce and marginalize virtual worlds as a serious platform for widespread adoption. Lets leverage the elaborate and proven interoperability of world currency markets and avoid the potential for confusion, added complexity and extra risk inherent in walled-virtual currencies.There is much more to be said on the topic of interoperability, however I will save it for future blogposts. In the interim, the ‘call to arms’ for this space is that I would encourage anyone interested in the long-term benefits and viability of virtual shared (work)spaces to focus on breaking down the early barriers to interoperability and encourage widespread standards and adoption so we can reap the benefit of the network effect of user adoption.