A Second Shot at Life: Talking shop with Rob Lanphier

Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier talks about Second Life with Linden Lab's Rob Lanphier. Find out all about Linden Lab's use of open source, how much time users spend in Second Life, and much more.

Combining escapism with the ability to interact with people from all over the world, Second Life has gathered a community of users from around the world. However, Linux users have been at a slight disadvantage compared to their Windows and Mac-using friends, because the viewer for Linux wasn’t quite as full-featured and usable as the Windows and Mac OS X viewers.

With the release of the Second Life Viewer beta for Linux, we thought it might be time to turn our attention to the Linden Lab folks and see what the company’s open source strategy is. Rob Lanphier, director of open source development at Linden Lab

Linux Magazine: First off, what’s the” elevator pitch” for Second Life these days? how would you sum it up for our readers who haven’t had any experience with it?

Rob Lanphier: Second Life is an immersive virtual 2D world created and inhabited by its users, whom we call Residents. In Second Life, Residents can interact with one another and make almost anything, from clothes to motor scooters to castles, and sell their creations for Linden Dollars, Second Life’s virtual currency. Linden Dollars are exchangeable for U.S. dollars, so Residents can make real money from their virtual-world businesses. Companies hold meetings and trainings in Second Life, and educators train students in everything from nursing to architecture. Second Life is also a meeting place for artists, musicians and other imaginative types. In a single day you can attend a concert, visit an art gallery, brush up your language skills and drop in on a philosophy discussion group. The experience is completely open-ended. If you want to build stuff, you can. If you want to hang out and meet people, you can. If you have an idea and want to start a business, you can. Second Life is whatever you want it to be.

Linux Magazine: What’s your experience with open source, and background in general? My personal experience dates back to college and my use of Emacs and X11. I read the GNU Manifesto and realized a couple of things: a) it was largely right, and b) it didn’t matter what I thought of it; it was clear some form of the idea was going to resonate with a lot of people eventually.

One of the first pieces of software that I published myself was a small Perl script for tabulating Condorcet elections. I worked at RealNetworks for nine years between 1996 and 2005 in a variety of roles that often had something to do with open standards and/or open source.

Even in the early days, we published some open source software which I was generally involved with in some way, but Real’s big foray into open source was the Helix Community initiative in 2002, where RealNetworks open sourced the media engines for its main media delivery products. After leaving Real, I spent some time making minor contributions and ramping up on MediaWiki development, when I got the call from Linden Lab to help out with the source code release. I’ve been at Linden Lab since fall of 2006.

Linux Magazine: Talk to us a bit about the strategy for open source and Linden Lab: how does open source fit into your strategy?

Rob Lanphier: Most importantly, we hope to establish the future Second Life architecture as the standard for the virtual world. We don’t want virtual worlds to end up as fragmented as the instant messaging space (for example), so we’re hoping by releasing the source code to our viewer, we can establish a starting point for interoperability and figure out where standards are needed the most.

We know many things will need to change about our existing architecture in order for this to be realized, We also hope to build an ecosystem around our technology. There’s no way that we can do it all, so we like having people using our technology, filling the gaps and making something much bigger than anything Linden Lab can create on its own. Publishing the source code facilitates resident collaboration in a way we’ve already seen succeed with content creation with Second Life.

We really want our Residents to feel invested in our success, and we think that publishing the source code helps accomplish that. We know our success in the marketplace is in no small part because of of their passionate advocacy of our technology. By doing a good job of making this less about Linden Lab and more about the ecosystem, we help decouple the success of the project from the success of Linden Lab itself, which I think makes it easier for people to personally invest themselves in the technology a lot more.

Linux Magazine: What sort of benefits have you seen already by open sourcing some of the components related to Second Life?

Rob Lanphier: We’ve seen a lot of really positive things in the past year. In releasing the source, we created a way for the world to help refine the Second Life protocols and then get them documented in a format ready for submission to formal standards groups.

We kicked off the Second Life Grid Architecture Working Group (http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/AWG) to help build this out. We think we’re well established to make this really work well in 2008 and beyond.

Having the source code available made our business dealings more efficient, and as a result we were able to quickly evaluate and acquire Windward Mark, and incorporate their previously proprietary technology into our viewer (see http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Windlight for more).

We’re also seeing early signs of a great commercial ecosystem, which should complement our open source developments nicely. We’ve got several commercial licensees shipping interesting products, such as Vollee working on a mobile version of Second Life, and Electric Sheep with the OnRez viewer. In addition to broadening choices for accessing Second Life, it created a new revenue stream which will fuel further GPL development of the viewer.

We’ve also gotten a lot of contributions. As of this writing we’ve had 276 patches from 70 unique contributors, and have an extremely active discussion list with over 700 subscribers. There were a number of niche viewers that addressed different areas of focus and for incorporating some of the experimental work that may yet see use in our production viewer, such as the University of Michigan’s stereoscopic viewing patch.

Packages for Debian, Fedora, and Ubuntu are underway, and we’ve received a lot of help polishing up the viewer on Linux (moving from alpha to beta status recently). Not only did we receive help from the community, but as an example, the OpenJPEG project received significant contributions from Second Life developer community as people were eager to replace the existing proprietary library we use.

Linux Magazine: Where doesn’t it make sense to release code as open source, if anywhere?

Rob Lanphier: That’s something we debate a lot here at Linden Lab, so I’m not even going to try to speak for the company on this one. There aren’t a lot of fully proven business models out there for production of open source software, so any significant release of previously proprietary source code is going to feel a lot like stepping into the abyss for a lot of companies, and Linden Lab is no exception.

Applying that question specifically to Linden Lab, I think a number of our server infrastructure components are likely to get replaced soon. The cost of supporting source code releases for those components probably outweighs any community benefit or competitive benefit that Linden Lab would derive from them.

Linux Magazine: What’s the Linden Lab Linux story? How and where is Linux being used by the company?

Rob Lanphier: The biggest use of Linux at Linden Lab is in our server infrastructure, which is almost entirely Linux-based, specifically Debian. I believe it’s been that way since the start of the company. A number of us are pretty regular users of Linux on the desktop as well, and our viewer releases happen on all three platforms we support (Windows, Mac, and Linux) simultaneously.

Linux Magazine: What license (s) do you prefer to use, and why? What sort of” features” does Linden Lab look for in an open source license?

Rob Lanphier: For our client code, we prefer GPL with a FLOSS exception for other OSI-approved licenses beyond the GPL compatible ones. We think this is the best bargain for everyone interested in the viewer. It gives the free software community what it wants (free software). But it also lets us retain the ability to charge for alternative proprietary licensing, which we can use to sustain our business and ensure we have the ability to publish more free software.

However, we’ve published under other licenses as well, when ubiquity and standards setting becomes more important than that reciprocal effect. We published the eventlet and mulib libraries for Python under the MIT license because we wanted to ensure maximum ubiquity for those components and didn’t see us ever getting into the commercial licensing business for those components. We’ve also used the Apache license for some work on Certified HTTP, which we’re collaborating with IBM on.

Linux Magazine: How many people are participating in Second Life from Linux?

Rob Lanphier: Linux viewer usage is a very small percentage of the total Second Life population, perhaps even smaller than can merely be explained by Linux’ small marketshare in the desktop market. We think that a lot of that may be the result of only just recently promoting the quality status of our viewer on Linux from” alpha” to” beta”. It’s really gotten much, much better over the past year. It’s now at the point where I can use it for my day-to-day work without hesitation.

Linux Magazine: What is uptake of Second Life like? How many people are participating at any given time?

Rob Lanphier: The number of Residents has grown tremendously over the past year and continues to grow. We have approximately 50,000 people in-world at any given time, though of course it fluctuates. At peak, we have upwards of 60,000 Residents logged in at once.

Linux Magazine: Do you track the usage times of users? What’s an average amount of time for someone to be in the Second Life world?

Rob Lanphier: Active Second Life users average around 53 hours a month. For anyone interested, we publish lots of statistics on population and usage at our Economic Statistics Page at http://secondlife.com/whatis/economy_stats.php.

Linux Magazine: Anything else our reader might want to know about?

Rob Lanphier: We’ve been rolling out a couple of highly anticipated changes that are going to have a big impact on the server side. One is the upgrade to the Havok 4 physics engine. This upgrade has been several years in the making, and public testing of this upgrade has been going very well for us.

The new physics engine makes many in-world physical interactions more precise, and we think the upgrade is going to be a huge boon for stability. The other big change is the incorporation of the Mono bytecode interpreter in the simulators. We’re not yet planning on replacing our the standard scripting language (LSL), but it opens the door for that. Of more immediate interest is the fact that it is much, much faster than our previous homebrewed bytecode interpreter.

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