It’s been a great 3 years! All my thanks to my colleagues at Linden Lab and our wonderful customers I wish you the very best for the future and continued success! I am starting-up a company to make Art, Entertainment and unusual things! More on that in a few weeks!
Rod Humble officially joined the Lab as CEO in early January 2011, although according to BK Linden, he had been logging-in during the closing months of 2010, “exploring and experimenting in-world to familiarise himself with the pluses and minuses of our product and the successes and challenges faced by our Residents”.
Prior to his arrival, and under the much maligned Mark Kingdon, the Lab had been investing in hardware and infrastructure, with Frank (FJ Linden) Ambrose being recruited into the company to head-up the work. This continued through the first year of Humble’s tenure as CEO, paving the way for a series of large-scale overhauls to the platform in an attempt to improve performance, stability, reliability of server / viewer communications and boost the overall user experience.
Much of this work initially announced in 2012 as “Project Shining”. It had been hoped within the Lab that the work would be completed within 12 months; however, so complex has it proven to be that even now, more that 18 months later, elements of core parts of it (viewer-side updates related to interest lists, the mesh-related HTTP work, final SSA updates) have yet to be fully deployed.
Even so, this work has led to significant improvements in the platform, many of which can be built upon (as with the HTTP updates paving the way for HTTP pipelining or the SSA work already generating core improvements to the inventory system’s robustness via the AIS v3 work).
It might be argued that these aren’t really achievements on Humble’s part, but rather things the company should have been doing as a matter of course. True enough; but the fact is, prior to Humble’s arrival, the work wasn’t being done with anything like the focus we’ve seen under his leadership.
A philosophy he brought to the Lab was that of rapid development / deployment cycles, as he indicated at his first (and only, as it turned out) SLCC address in 2011. This saw the server release process overhauled and the three RC channels introduced, making it easier to deploy updates, patches, and fixes to address bugs, issues and exploits.
Humble referred to this as “putting the ‘Lab’ back into Linden Lab”, and in fairness, it didn’t always work as advertised, as with the initial experience tools deployment in June 2012, which resulted in a spate of grid-wide griefing. However, it is fair to say it has generally resulted in less grid-wide disruption and upset.
More recently, this approach has also been applied to the viewer release process, allowing the Lab to focus more sharply on issues arising within the viewer code as a result of changes or integrating new capabilities. This in turn has largely eliminated the risk of issues bringing viewer updates to a complete halt, as happened in the latter part of 2012.
One of the more (to many SL users and observers) controversial aspects of Humble’s tenure was the move to diversify the company’s product brief. When talking to Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek in October 2012, he candidly admitted his initial attraction to the post was born from the company being “ready-made to do a whole bunch of other products, which I wanted to do.” He’d also forewarned SL users than the company would be diversifying its product brief during his 2011 SLCC address.
Many objected to this on the grounds it was “taking away” time and effort which might be focused on Second Life while others felt that it was a misappropriation of “their” money, or that it signalled “the end” of SL. In terms of the latter, the reality was, and remains, far from the case. In fact, if it can be done wisely, diversification might even, over time, help SL by removing the huge pressure placed upon it as the company’s sole means of generating revenue.
The problem is that the direction that has been taken by the Lab thus far doesn’t appear to be the most productive revenue-wise, at least in part. The apps market is both saturated and highly competitive (and even now, two of the products in that sector have yet to arrive on Android). Similarly, it might be argued that Desura could be more valuable as a marketable asset than as a long-term investment), and dio appears to be going nowhere. All of which leaves Patterns, which in fairness does appear to be carving a niche for itself, and has yet to be officially launched. It will be interesting to see what, if any, appetite the Lab has for continuing with these efforts now that Humble has departed.
There have been missteps along the way, to be sure. Humble’s tenure has been marked by a series of ongoing and quite major issues with the SL Marketplace which the company appeared to be completely unable to bring under control. These prompted me to wonder if “putting the ‘Lab’ back into Linden Lab” might actually work in all cases. Worse, they led to a clear and continued erosion in customer trust where the Marketplace was concerned and quite possibly damaged Humble’s own reputation. Despite promises of “upping the tempo” with communications and updates, all merchants saw was the commerce team reduce communications to the bare minimum, and refused to hold in-world meetings which might otherwise have improved relationships.
Similarly, some projects were perhaps pushed through either too quickly or without real regard for how well they might be employed. Mesh was perhaps prematurely consigned to the “job done” basket, particularly given the loud and repeated calls for a deformation capability which were spectacularly ignored (and are only now being addressed, after much angst and upset in the interim, all of which could have been avoided). Pathfinding has failed to live up to the Lab’s expectations and still appears to be something that could have been pushed down the road a little so that other work could carried out which might have left people more interested in given it a go.
Broad-based communications between the Lab and the user base had been in decline prior to Humble’s arrival, prompting Tateru Nino to dub the expression “The Silence of the Lab”. Initially, it appeared as if this might be reversed under Humble’s tenure, given that he seemed to be everywhere, Tweeting and chatting via the feeds, taking a hand-on approach to issues and updates, etc. The irony here is that, by making himself so accessible, he inadventently gave the impression this would always be the case, when obviously the demands of his role as CEO would dictate otherwise.
The failure here is not so much that he stopped communicating in this way but rather that the Lab didn’t see the need to put in place a mechanism to ensure outward, broad-based communications would continue off the back of his accessibility through social media. Instead, communications were allowed to decline further. Worse, they also became unpredictable, randomly bouncing from the occasional blog post to e-mail notifications, to short-lived “newsletters”, to forum posts, back to e-mail notices, and so on. Had the Lab sought to ensure more consistent and informative communications of matters of import to users, then issues such as the confusion over tax documentation may have been avoided, while matters relating to the August 2013 ToS changes might have resulted in less angst and anger had the Lab been more pro-active in explaining things.
There has been criticism that Humble didn’t “do more” to attract new users to SL. Ironically, when the Lab looked to open new potential avenues through which to attract new users, they were equally lambasted. However, one can understand why there may not have been more work put into the whole “new user experience”, because the focus has been in ensuring the platform is robust and attractive enough in order to retain any new users the Lab might aim to try and attract in the future.
That said, the sign-up process was overhauled with impressive results (which cannot be entirely dismissed as people creating alts), and the Lab did start experimenting with options for getting people more rapidly actively engaged in the platform, most recently with the A/B testing of the new “Social” and “Learning” islands. What we now need to see is a solid push in this direction, with a cohesive strategy behind it that can demonstrably lead to a greater influx of people into SL who “stick” as engaged users. This is certainly something that was on Humble’s roadmap for the platform given his own statements on the matter of “getting back” the 30 million or so who have tried and left SL, so there is no reason to assume it won’t survive his departure.
For my part, I cannot help but feel that taken on balance, and in terms of Second Life, the Lab’s Humble Years have been largely positive. That’s not to say there haven’t been mistakes or that there aren’t issues which have yet to be addressed; far from it. Rather, it is a reflection that in terms of the platform, it is far more capable and robust and doubtless easier to manage and maintain with his departure than it was on his arrival.
Efforts elsewhere with the company may not have been so positive – but where diversification and new products are concerned, success isn’t going to happen overnight or even within the first couple of years. Hence why it will be interesting to see what happens in this area with Humble’s departure.
As to the future, we have yet to hear from LL and their plans. Will the recruit from outside or promote from within? I would tend to say they’ll opt for the former. However, were they to promote from within, then I’d most likely point to Malcolm Dunne or Don Laabs as possible candidates. Dunne is the current CFO, and that position, coupled with his experience would seem to make him the more likely candidate of the two. However, Laabs is the Director of Product for SL, and he has also been a CTO in the past. Taken together, these might make him an attractive proposition for the board, as he potentially has the necessary understanding of SL and the wider experience for managing LL as a whole.
In the meantime, people will continue to debate the pro and cons of Rod Humble’s time at Linden Lab. For my part, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank him for his time at the Lab, and for the time he took with me in a number of off-the-record exchanges, and to wish him all the best with his new venture, about which I certainly hope we’ll be hearing more in the near future.