Imprudent Emerald Meerkats

Imprudent Emerald MeerkatSo the recent Second Life weblog posting on third-party viewer policies has caused quite a stir in the comments, due in part to one particularly vocal and vehement and misinformed Resident, but due also to some quite understandable concern about the current and future role of third-party viewers in Second Life.

Ever since the Lab open-sourced the viewer, way back in some year prior to this one, there have been third-party viewers available, based to a greater or lesser extent on the main Linden viewer. A bunch of alternative viewers are listed in the wiki; the ones whose logos I’ve snatch for the adorable picture here are Imprudence, Emerald and Meerkat. I’ve used both Imprudence and Emerald, myself; currently Emerald is my favorite just because it has so many nice small features, and they seem to have thought hard about the overall user experience: lots of the little things that I want to do are just that one or two mouse movements and clicks closer to hand than they are in any other viewer.

And of course there are the enhanced avatar physics. :) But I was using Emerald before that feature was added.

I’m hoping that Imprudence, say, will be goaded by a friendly sense of rivalry to make their viewer even more pleasant to use than Emerald. Competition is good. :)

Third-party viewers are really popular on the Grid these days, especially among people who have been around long enough to know they exist and try them out. One nice thing about Emerald is that it can often tell you what viewer other Residents that you see are using (although they can turn that off if they’d rather you didn’t know). The fraction of the crowd using Emerald seems to vary from around 10% in your average dance club, to 40% or higher in places where the people tend to be more oldbie or more clued in general (I’d say it was close to 50% at the Lamplighter procession the other night).

The new policy that was announced on the SL weblog was rather vague and unformed. It said that people using third-party viewers to violate the Second Life Terms of Service would be warned and/or banned, as appropriate; but since that’s true of anyone who uses any viewer to violate the ToS, it doesn’t really mean anything new. It also mentioned that the Lab might provide a registry of viewers known to be nice. And in a letter to the developers of third-party viewers, Cyn Linden apparently mentioned the ability to encrypt chat and IM as a function that is “at odds with” the ToS, something that has left quite a few people scratching their heads.

Toward the end of the comment thread linked above, Blondin asked for people to summarize their thoughts on the subject. Here’s what I wrote:

Always nice to have a chance to summarize. :)

My basic feeling on the general subject is that third-party viewers are a primary source of innovation in virtual worlds technology, and I would hate to see Second Life cut itself off from that stream. This is largely for selfish personal reasons: I think a Second Life that closes in on itself that way would quickly fade from the scene, and re-establishing on OpenGrid or elsewhere my social networks and my reputation (not to mention my collections of nice tank-tops and dark-red hair) would take time and effort that I’d rather spend on other things.

In itself this new policy doesn’t, I don’t think, put too much of a burden on the viewer innovation stream. If the lab publishes a reasonable set of rules for acceptable third-party viewers, and is reasonable about enforcing those rules, that would be fine. The rules should include a ban on functions whose main effect is to enable copyright violation or griefing. If the Lab has some good reason for it, they could also include a ban on end-to-end encryption, but I would really like to hear the reasons behind it. And the rule should not say that the encryption function may not be in the viewer at all; at most it should say that the function should be turned off when connecting to the SL grid.

So as long as this policy is truly just an attempt to limit the use and distribution of malicious viewers, I think that’s all to the good. To the extent that it’s a step toward closing the grid to independantly-written viewers in general, I think that would be a very bad thing for Second Life as a leader, or even a significant player, in its field.

It’s been loudly suggested that the third-party viewers that we have now are a threat to content creators, and I’d like to take a moment to address that issue, because I don’t think it’s true, and I think an artificial conflict between viewer developers and content creators would be harmful to both communities, and to Residents as a whole.

The current third-party viewers include, as everyone knows, various features that are useful to content creators: things like more flexible and precise build tools, and temporary texture caching that doesn’t use the asset servers. (The argument that if users get used to free temporary ‘uploads’, they will come to demand free real uploads is unconvincing to me: one could as well argue that allowing free uploads on the Beta Grid will lead users to demand it on the main grid as well, and that hasn’t happened. Users understand that if they want to store textures on the main grid asset servers, they need to pay the upload fee.)

But as well as features that are directly useful to content creators, third-party viewers also contain innovations that help protect content. Consider a skin creator, for instance. Unless the main Linden viewer has changed since last time I looked, every time someone using that viewer walks into a club wearing a skin that that person created, a copy of that skin is saved in cache on the hard drive of everyone in the club who can see them. On the other hand, if someone wearing that skin walks into a club using the Emerald viewer, with the appropriate box checked (I forget whether it’s the default), the only thing that ends up in all those caches is the fully baked and composited AV texture; the skin itself isn’t sent anywhere.

This kind of feature protects, not the Emerald user as such (who probably doesn’t really care, as a user, about what’s in other people’s disk caches), but the creator of the content that the user is wearing; the content creator gets this protection regardless of what viewer she herself uses. This feature has been discussed for the main Linden viewer for some time, but because the Lab is always busy, and has things that it considers more urgent to attend to, it hasn’t been (at least last time I looked) implemented there yet.

This is the virtue of the third-party viewer system in general: it allows innovation and experimentation with all sorts of features, to the benefit of the Residents using the viewers, the producers of the content that they use, and the grid as a whole, without the burden of the Lab’s review cycles, internal politics, and resource constraints. Malicious innovation is of course also possible, and I think the viewer policy that we’re discussing here, if carefully and thoughtfully implemented, will be a good way of minimizing the impact of that.

On the whole, it’s my feeling that Second Life will stay in the game only if it stays tied to key sources of innovation. If this policy is a way to do that responsibly, that’s a good thing. If it is part of an effort to break that tie, that would be very ill-advised.

It’s always hard to tell what’s going on in the collective mind of Linden Lab. I hope that this new policy will be made sensibly and thoughtfully, and keep Second Life going strong. If only ’cause I have a lot of tank tops. :)