Open Source and Second Life

30 11 2006

Another train ride and some time for writing. This time I wanted to reflect a bit on the copybot discussion and I might even follow up on that later. And please excuse typos 🙂

CopyBot revisited

Recently in conjunction with the big CopyBot controversy there was also lots of talk about Open Source. In this case of course in the scope of Second Life and thus the project in question was libsecondlife.

Some people were demanding to ban the whole project and it’s people from Second Life as apparently the result of libsecondlife have not always been pleasing. And especially the CopyBot episode showed that lots of uproar can take place because of it.

But is it fair? Of course at the first glance CopyBot poses a big problem to many content creators in Second Life. But then again it has it’s restrictions. Also blaming the whole project is probably not fair as the potential of good uses are big and probably bigger than the bad ones. Moreover the actual problem is not the result of libsecondlife but immanent to the system, created by Linden Lab. So what libsecondlife did was mainly bringing it to the surface. Of course things could have handled better, e.g.

  • there was some sort of advertising of the CloneBot going on (I think the predecessor of it which copied just your avatar’s appearance without saving it). Sometimes demonstrating inherit featured and problems of a system might be good but knowing how alert sometimes one has to think about the consequences. You also need to explain things, how they work, what the limitations are and so on. This opportunity was missed in the first place. Later they added it to their blog but it was a bit too late and most of the residents are probably not reading that particular blog.
  • Most of the anger did arise from the fact that this is a very technical problem which not many people do fully understand (because they do not have technical background but therefor are great fashion designers etc.). So they need to get this explanation in a way they understand. I am not sure Linden Lab sees itself in that role but IMHO it would have been good to explain much earlier what the system can and can not do. The Linden Lab blog is at least a very popular place compared to the libsecondlife blog (I also tried to explain it as you can read here).

So the result of that uncertainty is of course fear of your business. Now it seems to have cooled down a little again and as Hamlet writes here, people start to get back to normal. And I also want to state here again that you as content creator are more than just your items. You have a name, people come to you because they know they get good quality stuff and hopefully also good quality service. I personally also think the latter is as important as the creativity.

Open Source

Now what about Open Source? Linden Lab stated again that they are supporting the libsecondlife project but maybe they missed a little to explain why they actually do. We can only guess but I can at least talk about why I personally like Open Source.

I am running a company based on the Open Source CMS (Content Management System) Plone which is a tool for non-technical people to make it easy to manage their website. There is a big community supporting this product (e.g. we have 200 people with checkin rights to the repository which means this amount of people is theoretically able to add to the project). They are all over the world, communicate via mailing lists, IRC channels, a little now via Second Life, the developer section and via personal email. Additionally we meet for sprints (meetings somewhere on the world where some people meet to program together mostly on a certain topic) and conferences.

Now why do we work together on the project and how do we manage to actually run a company on top of it? The main reason for doing stuff in an open source fashion is for better quality. Code you produce is constantly checked by others for bugs. It is also in the public which means just everybody (with the technical skills to do so of course) can obtain the actual state of the code, install it on their computer and give it a try. You then eventually report bugs or even fix them directly and feed them back to the main code repository.

It is also some sort of business collaboration because you have much more manpower to work on the project than your small company alone. Everybody involved profits from that.
Of course the product itself (actually more a framework) is free but people still need help in installing it or customizing it as it does not fit every use case directly. This is what the companies involved make money with. They also might create custom extension for it which eventually flow back into the community for everybody to use.

And for the quality argument also look at commercial software and how long it sometimes takes to fix a bug. And they might even just get fixed if there’s enough attention to it. And as the code is not visible to outsiders they also cannot check for potential problems in the code which the original programmers have missed. In an open source environment many more eyes look at that code and thus potentially spot more bugs, exploits and so on. These sometimes get fixed even the same day (we happened to get told about a big at the last <a href=””>EuroPython</a&gt; conference during a lightning talk and the same evening the hotfix was out).

Another example if the browser field. Once there was the open source alternative Firefox/Mozilla Microsoft started developing on Internet Explorer again because it seemed to them like a potential threat. So without Firefox one could also argue that there would be no big innovation anymore in that field. Other fields might be similar.

According to Eben Moglen, General Counsel of the Free Software Foundation, Open Source also has the ability to change society. What in the last century was steel for the world is today software. While I don’t see software as commodity as he sees it he nevertheless did give a great keynote at the last Plone Conference about it. IMHO it is a must-listen and can be found here.

Open Source and Second Life

Now libsecondlife is not that much different from other open source projects. It also has the ability to better spot possible exploits and get those fixed quickly by Linden Lab if possible (like Megaprims). It also has the possibility to create business (ok, mainly for programmers) but also to help people for a better Second Life experiences.
Here are some things which might arise from it:

  • a complete new and better client as it happened with Firefox
  • better tools for managing your own(!) content like sorting your inventory or even create a backup of it
  • better tools for dynamically interacting with the world

Now Linden Lab also was talking about someday releasing their client as open source. Probably it’s a long way since then as I think they have some licensed code in there which needs to be removed first. Additionally they need to create the logistics and policies in place. Just releasing source code without anything further will probably not work (although the libsecondlife guys will most likely pick it up). They need to have some clear guidelines on how the client will get developed and who has the final word on design decisions. This is normal in Open Source projects, you need to have one big leader who has the final word. Usually this is the founder, sometimes people somehow arise from the group of developers. This does not mean that people cannot follow their own decisions but they won’t be the official client than anymore.

The question is still the support for libsecondlife. Actually it’s not really big support except that they said it’s legal (once at the SLCC and then in terms of changing their TOS). If they wanted to truly support them they would give them all the information they need. But they don’t except maybe some hints here and there. One reason I can imagine here is that they want to test their protocol in small steps for problems. The libsecondlife team will probably not find them all at once but one by one. And thus Linden Lab has time to fix them that way. So it’s maybe a small transition towards open source, trying out how it works.

Now libsecondlife is not completely like other open source projects around because they interact with the inner workings of a complete world :-)This means they need to be careful and need to think twice about what they do, release and how they explain it. If they don’t we have seen the results.

The team has shuffled and changed a bit and now we will see how they handle it next time! And eventually media should make sure that not only the bad aspects are presented but also the good ones as I expect many of them to come.

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3 responses

1 12 2006
Nobody Fugazi (aka Taran Rampersad)

I’m planning a long post on this tomorrow/in a few hours/whatever – the Open Source bit… now… I’m a FLOS advocate, open content advocate, etc… but there are a lot of questions that have to be answered before open source is possible (in fact, you mentioned some in a previous post).

LibSecondLife may have to change some more. Between all the ruckus that has been raised, it’s been hard for me to sift through what’s good and what’s bad- I joined the group *during* the Copybot controversy because I am working on stuff related to SL at this time, and I saw Copybot for what it was for. So many unanswered questions, and there’s a lot of different opinions from what I gather – within the community – on a lot of different things. I can’t – and will not – speak for the group, but I can say that there are some good and helpful people within the group… and that’s what I think the open source COMMUNITY is about. Translating that to code to greater community…

I’ll stop now. I’m rambling, but I think you see what some of the problems are.

8 01 2007
Siobhan Taylor

Now don’t get me wrong, I think open source is almost always a good thing, but there are problems with this. You opened this post with “Another train ride”, well, another train wreck is how I see it.

Sure, exploits will be spotted quicker, assuming that programmers get their hands on the right versions. I’m wary. No, I’m more than wary, I’m on the verge of paranoia. Maybe some good will come of this (linux executables maybe), but all I see is a whole load of bad.

Sure, you or I may be very careful about what we compile on our PC, but is everyone? How many will download a few hundred MB of source code when they can download 20 or 30MB of binary? And there WILL be rogue versions. Maybe they won’t last long before everyone knows, but… it might be time enough, and “everyone” assumes that newbies to SL won’t get caught.

I really really hope I’m wrong, but all I see is a bleak future.

8 01 2007

Well, there will only be one official client released by Linden Lab. Every contributer to this needs to sign a contributer agreement with his real life data and many other people will check each other contributions a lot until they eventually get marked for a release by Linden Lab (being the release manager). In this case it is very unlikely that bad code will get into the official code repository.

Of course there might be versions out there which are not official. They can be released by anybody (but eventually might not be allowed to be named in a certain way, haven’t checked that yet) and it might contain bad code. But here it is as always on the internet, don’t run programs from people you don’t trust. Go to the homepage and download your client from there and you should be ok.

One problem might still be that there can be exploitable code in the existing code base. This is a danger right now as people might be able to use them. But the first thing people are doing now besides trying to compile it is looking how secure the code pieces are (both good and bad guys probably) and to think about fixes or at least telling LL about it. But we will have to see how much is really needed to be fixed related to this.

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