One year on: Ebbe’s Linden Lab

On Monday, February 10th, 2014, Ebbe Altberg officially took-over the reins as the CEO of Linden Research Inc. (aka Linden Lab).

The news of his appointment, which had been released not too long before his arrival, and after the Lab remained steadfastly silent after the departure of his predecessor had entered the public domain, tended to bring retorts of “who he?”, promoting me to pull together something of a profile on him from various sources, which tended to draw largely positive feedback. I also took the liberty of offering a couple of suggestions on the day he arrived at LL, which appeared to be appreciated:

So, now we are a year on, how have things been, overall?

For me, given I originally wrote that “open letter” to him on the subject of communications, the turn-around has been both noticeable and appreciated. At the first of his many public appearances with bodies of users and groups which marked his opening months at the Lab, Ebbe effectively announced at the 2014 VWBPE event that the door is once again open, and demonstrated as much by spending almost 90 minutes addressing questions from users.

Following that, we saw re-engagement through forums, further bridge building with educational and non-profit organisations, the re-opening of the JIRA, the lifting on the ban on Linden staff entering SL using their Linden accounts unless they were on official business, and fresh (and persistent) use of the blogs once more to present news, information and updates – such as Monty Linden’s superb range of posts on the HTTP work, or Landon Linden’s equally informative posts such as The Recent Unpleasantness. As the year progressed the Lab continued to open windows as well as doors, seeking to re-engage with the community through a variety of means, from pro-actively seeking input from users on potential improvements to SL through to something as simple as the return of the annual snowball fight.

Ebbe Altberg: one year in the Hot Seat
Ebbe Altberg: one year in the Hot Seat

All of this has been to the good, even if some approached this “new” openness (actually more of a return to how the Lab used to be) with suspicion. Some of it was perhaps understandable; at the start of his tenure at the Lab, Ebbe’s predecessor seemed to initially breathe life into matters of communication (even then a priority in many people’s eyes) – only for the door to been slammed shut again within a few months.

Some might even argue that such re-engagement is trivial “in the scheme of things”; I’d say not so. Engagement and communication lie as two of the foundations of trust between a company such as a Lab and its user community; therefore putting them both back in place does do much to stem the erosion of that trust.

Elsewhere, things may seem to have been a little slower. While there have been changes for the better for SL in technical terms, it’s fair to say that these have been more incremental and evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. But then, SL is a decade-plus old platform; getting truly revolutionary with it isn’t that easy. Instead, what we’ve had is a continuation of approach started prior to Ebbe’s arrival at the Lab – and quite rightly, too.

Far better to allow projects of proven likely benefit to continue to their conclusion and then build on them, than to suddenly try to jump tracks and do something else entirely, even if it does promise lots of new shiny in the process. As it is, the improvements this work has brought to the vast majority of users are undeniable. What’s more the approach has meant the thorns long ignored, such as group chat issues (another pressing problem put to Ebbe when he arrived) are also getting attention.

The Engadget Expand NY panel for Back to Reality: VR Beyond Gaming. For left to right: Ebbe Altberg, Matt Bell, Marte Roel and host Ben Gilbert
Ebbe Altberg also worked to put Linden Lab and Second Life front-and-centre of the debate on the future of the metaverse through opportunities such as SVVR’s Creating the VR Metaverse panel, and in discussions about the future of VR outside of games through opportunities such as at Engadget Expand NY in November 2014  (above)  where he joined Matt Bell, Marte Roel and host Ben Gilbert.

Where things have perhaps been radical have been outside of Second Life, such as the dropping of almost all of the products that marked the company’s attempts to diversify its portfolio and potentially generate additional revenue. Again, this was actually something started before Ebbe’s arrival, but which he supported – hence the axing of Creatorverse, dio and Versu, to be followed later in the year by the closure of Patterns development and the sale of Desura.

In truth, when first announced, the idea of the Lab looking to diversify its revenue stream through a broader product base was a good one; the problem was the follow-through never really matched expectation and became too much of a grand experiment.

Of all the products the Lab developed or acquired, only Blocksworld has demonstrated it has real legs, while Creatorverse and dio, always appeared to be far too limited in appeal to ever gain deep and lasting traction, so trimming them was a sensible move. It was also hard to see how the acquisition of Desura could offer the Lab practical revenue growth outside of meeting its own needs, or without on-going investment and development which would in turn offset the value of revenue gained. Even so, Patterns and Versu, did appear to offer potential. Versu has certainly since gone on under its own steam (full kudos to the Lab for allowing it to do so), while Patterns, even though still under development, built up a small but loyal following on both Steam and Desura, and the announcement of its passing did give rise to upset.

The little "Dorito man" headed off into the sunset in October, as Patterns followed Creatorverse, dio and Versu in being axed from the Lab's nascent product portfolio. It was followed in November by news that Desura had been sold.
The little “Dorito man” headed off into the sunset in October, as Patterns followed Creatorverse, dio and Versu in being axed from the Lab’s nascent product portfolio. It was followed in November by news that Desura had been sold.

This move to divest itself of other products was in part related to what has been perhaps the most controversial decision Ebbe has made: to press ahead with attempts to build a “next generation” virtual world(s) platform.

While the way in which the news broke wasn’t perhaps the best (particularly as it gave rise to a number of somewhat inaccurate Tweets and comments which seemed to quickly become rooted as “fact”), it’s hard not to think that much of the negative reaction was a trifle over-wrought. But then again, what is Second Life without it’s annual “The Sky Is Falling!” moment?

Obviously, whether or not the Lab can succeed in their goal remains to be seen; I personally harbour doubts over whether they can achieve the “hundreds of millions” of users Ebbe has mentioned in relation to the new platform, and for a wide variety of reasons – three of which I’ve mentioned (and the rest I’ll get around to discussing at some point!). But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.

The fact is, the virtual landscape is changing thanks to both VR and a slowly growing interest in the potential for virtual spaces. The metaverse is once again being considered, and not just by those of us already engaged in VWs. As such, it does make sense for the Lab to position themselves such that they can better leverage emerging technologies and potentially capture a share of new markets and new opportunities; and whether we like it or not, there is much that prevents Second Life from being the vehicle by which they can do so.

And in the meantime, SL is still here and is still being enhanced.

Clockwise: Ebbe, Saffia and Elrik
Ebbe (l) also appeared on a Designing Worlds special with Saffia Widdershins and Elrik Merlin, where he discussed Second Life, the “next generation” platform and more – see the video and transcript for details

There have been some missteps along the way. While the aim was to comply with legal requirements, the manner in which the Lab has handled the changes to the Lab’s Skill Gaming policy and the need for users and organisations in SL to be in compliance with the new policy wasn’t really handled too sprightly. Announced deadlines were quickly pushed back further into the year, while the lack of some core information – such as recurring fees – didn’t inspire confidence in some.

The resolution to the August 2013 changes to Section 2.3 of the Terms of Service also wasn’t ideal in the eyes of many people. The language presented, with its use of parentheses around key phrases, seems to do more in the way of obfuscation than clarification. For those of us who had, at the Lab’s behest in 2013, attempted to explain concerns and offer alternative language which adequately met the needs of both sides – the creatives in SL and the Lab – the re-wording was (and remains) a disappointment. It’s fair to say that things may have fallen silent in this matter, that they have is more a mark of people being resigned to the revised wording, rather than as a result of any satisfaction with it.

Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, My own feeling is that Ebbe’s first year has been positive. There is far more in the way of communications going on, we’re seeing strong commitment to SL continue, with a very public charge over the future of the platform being led by Oz Linden (who has actually just returned to Boston after a trip to San Francisco to work on plans for SL’s  further enhancement).

Certainly, many (a majority?) of those offering reasoned opinion about Second life appear to be a lot more buoyant and positive in their outlook, be it through blog posts or forum comments or feedback through in-world meetings, Q&A sessions and so on.

So, belated happy rezday, Ebbe, and congratulations on your first year in the Hot Seat!

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3 thoughts on “One year on: Ebbe’s Linden Lab

  1. I think there may have been a missed opportunity with Dio, the real problem there seemed to be that Dio itself had an identity crisis and wasn’t sure if it was an interactive storytelling tool, or a photo hosting site or something in between, or neither. The way stories are told is changing, there’s a market there.

    Ebbe has had a good first year, region losses have slowed down, although the rate of decline certainly started under Rod Humble.

    Ebbe has helped to introduce the concept of a new virtual world from LL but made good on his promise that Second Life won’t be left to rot, indeed the changes being made are positive and sensible. They also seem to have a look of changes that are intended for a platform that has plenty of life in it still.

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    1. I tend to think dio was handicapped from the start with a top-heavy, non-intuitive UI which didn’t really offer any value proposition in terms of end results to make people really want to delve into it and use it. Then, after the re-vamp, it went entirely the other way and offered a UI and options so simplistic, they offered little real benefit over tools such as Flickr.

      With due respect to Ebbe, I think region losses would have continued to slow through 2014 (just as they had started in 2013) regardless as to who was at the helm. Other factors are at work, well beyond that of changing CEOs.

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  2. To be honest, i only care about Second Life, all the rsst of the portfolio of the Lab does not mean any to me as a user.
    Ebbe maybe didn’t start any in Second Life, but the fact that Second Life did improve substantially for its users in technical areas while Linden Lab reborn efforts to socialize with its user base are much more visible now, for sure is not a mere coincidence.
    So for sure i would say it was a pretty good 1st year for Ebbe, in all related to trust even as you mention, some problems remain unclear (Tos) and Second Life.
    Lets hope that the profits will also reflect that feeling.

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