Looking at the (award-winning) Second Life video ad

A still from Children of Creation, Linden Lab / Leverage Media

During the Lab Gab special on Monday, June 21st, that featured board member and Executive Chair Brad Oberwager (Oberwolf Linden) and the SL leadership team of Grumpity, Patch and Brett Linden, a “commercial break” was taken to show – I believe for the first time – a complete advertising cut of the video filmed for Second life as a collaborative project between Linden Lab and  Levitate Media.

I’ve extracted the video via timestamps and embedded it at the end of this article so it can be seen without the interviews that come on either side of it, and during the show, Brett linden revealed more about it:

  • The overall project for the video has the internal title at the Lab of The Children of Creation.
  • The version shown (and embedded below) is one of several cuts of the recorded film, and is specifically geared towards teasing out the ideas of freedom of expression and imagination taking flight, hence the emphasis on flying.
  • Other cuts of the video (I believe from Brett’s comments) emphasise Second life in other ways, some offering a “considerable amount” of Second Life footage, and a “directors cut” that does not really show the virtual world, but acts as a teaser.
  • The ad (as seen here) was entered into the 2021 Telly Awards for artistic achievement in video advertising, where it received the following adjudicated awards:
    • Gold Telly winner – Online Commercials Craft-Visual Effects.
    • Gold Telly winner – People’s Telly General-Online Commercials.
    • Silver Telly winner – Online Commercials Craft-Music/Jingle.
    • Silver telly winner – Online Commercials Craft-Directing.
  • The video is regarded as a “concept  ad” and has not as yet been widely deployed as a part of any advertising or other campaign. However, there are plans to discretely test some of the edits (including the “director’s cut”).

You can list to Brett’s comment on the ad below:

Personal Viewpoint

From a purely personal perspective, I think the advert as shown works pretty well; the images are well-matched to the narration, and the overall impact is the idea of liberation and freedom of expression. The intercuts of changing avatar appearances particularly underscores this, as do more subtle elements (take the still used as the banner image for this article, for example – the person / avatar flying away from the bright “Hive” sign, alluding to escaping humdrum, unified thinking and moving to new horizons). There is also a good sense of mystery to the ad that present the encouragement to go find out more about what it means

However, I have to caveat this by saying the phrase “if you’re travelling beyond this life” perhaps doesn’t sit as well as it might, given that terms like “beyond this life” are often using in reference to people passing on. This and other phrasing in the video might push uninitiated ears towards thinking the add is about some kind of cult or similar, rather than promoting a digital world; perhaps “beyond this world” might have been a better choice of words.

I’d be curious to learn how well the ad (and variations thereof) sit with assorted audiences, and maybe we’ll find out in time. For now, however, here’s the ad as shown during Lab Gab.

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Opinion: in consideration of Ebbe and the Lab’s next CEO

Source: Google

Friday brought the sad news that Ebbe Altberg, the CEO of Linden Research Inc., had passed away. And while it is perhaps too soon to be thinking about things as people are still coming to terms with the news, polls, comments and opinions have nevertheless already started circulating as to the kind of CEO the company should now look towards.

Chief among the opinions being expressed is that it should be “someone who has been in Second Life for a good amount of time and has plenty of experience.” But is this accurate?

Ebbe Altberg: perhaps linden Lab’s most successful CEO. Souce: Linden Lab

As I noted in  my own tribute to Ebbe, while he did come to Linden Lab with a good degree of foreknowledge – his son Aleks had been very successful with the Teen Grid before transitioning to the Main grid, and Ebbe himself was a close friend of Jed Smith, the former chairman of the Lab’s board; as he readily admitted himself, he was not in any way either a long-term user of the platform or who had “plenty of experience” with it prior to joining the company.

And yet, as we’ve all noted over the pass several days since the news broke, Ebbe has been without a doubt, the most popular of CEOs at the Lab among users. His tenure was by no means perfect, but overall his presence strengthened both company and principal product enormously – up to and including spinning-off a revenue-generating subsidiary that in time might help both, in the form of Tilia Pay.

Thus, I would suggest that the qualities needs for CEO are not so much any deep / long-term exposure to or involvement in Second Life, but rather the qualities and skills needed to manage and lead a company and leverage the strengths inherent in its management team and staff. In this, I would say that long-time friend and commentator R.( R. Dismantled) has summed up the requirements of any incoming CEO the best:

Not a celebrity, but a manager of managers, making the good and difficult decisions. And not just talk and hype and making Second Life something it isn’t, but making it better…

… I hope that the next person entrusted to manage the managers of our weird little social soap bubble will be cut from the same cloth.

– R. (R. Dismantled) commenting on this blog

From the outset, Ebbe was “a manager of managers”. He trusted those reporting into him to run their departments in a manner that would best support the company, its core product and its users. At the same time, he was prepared to make the necessary hard choices to swing the company back onto a more solid course of product development – shutting down the Creatorverse, dio and Versu projects almost immediately (and later allowing the creators of Versu to spin it off into its own platform), winding down work on Patterns and selling Desura, whilst allowing Blocksworld to serve its community through until mid-2020. And – while it may not have entirely worked out as hoped – he set the company on paths that might seen the development of additional revenue-generating opportunities, through both the aforementioned Tilia Pay and through the development of Sansar.

Ebbe Linden, aka Ebbe Altberg.  Credit; Strawberry Singh

There’s also the fact that the CEO’s brief is a broad one, encompassing skills and abilities far beyond general team leadership and product understanding.

While such skills can be acquired from within organisation, they do make promotion from within potentially more difficult even when – from an outside perspective, at least – there may appear to be “obvious” candidates, simply because they do take time to acquire and effectively wield.

As such, the “hire from without / promote from within” is a difficult path to tread – with the latter aspect further compounded by the fact that even if there are potential candidates within the organisation that could transition and acquire the skills of a CEO over time – they may not actually want to do so, simply because it means they must relinquish aspects of their work they actually enjoy the most.

In the specific case of Linden Research, things are perhaps further compounded by the fact that Ebbe Altberg was somewhat unique in his background. This spanned running large and small corporate entities, presenting him with the broadest base of skillsets, and was coupled with his own “left-brain / right brain” balance of technical and creative skills and knowledge that – even without a long-standing involvement in Second life – provided him with a solid foundation for quickly understanding the complexities of the platform and its communities of users with their needs once he was at his desk at the Lab.

There is also another factor to consider here: does the Lab actually need someone to take over directly as CEO?

Since the acquisition process closed-off at the end of 2020, incoming investor Brad Oberwager has been conspicuous in the degree to which he has been hands-on in his role as Executive Chair within the management team, as reported by the likes of Grumipty, Brett and Patch Linden at various in-world events. Mr. Oberwagerf has also brought long-term business partner/colleague Cammy Bergren into the LL fold as the company’s Chief of Staff.

Linden Lab’s Chief of Staff, Cammy Bergren (centre left) and Board member / Executive Chairman, Brad Oberwager (centre right) and their respective avatars. Both appear to have been very much at the helm of Linden Lab since Mr. Oberwager and his fellow investors acquired the company at the end of 2020.

Between them, they have considerable experience in running corporate entities, and as such are well-placed to steer Linden Lab through the next several months without the need for any immediate appointment from without or within, giving staff more time to deal with the loss of Ebbe whilst ensuring both the company and Second Life adjust and move forward under a broader management umbrella (I exclude Tilia Pay here as that entity appears to be almost entirely self-managing).

So, with all that being said, right now it is far too early to be considering “what ifs” and “who mights” in terms of the role of CEO at the Lab. Ebbe’s legacy is huge and something that we should all spend more time reflecting upon  – and we should allow Linden Lab space to reflect on the  loss of a man they knew better than the rest of us, rather than speculating on “who should be next”.

Oz Linden announces his forthcoming departure from Linden Lab

Oz Linden, circa 2014

On Tuesday, February 16th, 2021, and in a surprise to Second Life users, Linden Lab’s Vice President of Engineering, Oz Linden (aka Scott Lawrence in the physical world) announced his forthcoming departure from the Lab.

Oz joined Linden Lab in 2010, taking on the role of Director of Open Development. At that time, the viewer was in something of a state of flux; the “new” Viewer 2 had not long been launched, the development of which had largely excluded the user community and, particularly, developers who had long been associated with viewer development through the submission of code contributions.

As a result of this and other factors, users and developers alike were at the time feeling alienated and disenfranchised – facts that Oz immediately recognised and sought to address.

In the first instance this was done by replacing the open-source viewer Snowglobe project with a new Snowstorm project, intended to bring as much of the viewer development out into the open as possible – an approach Oz continued to push for throughout his time at the Lab, thus bringing order and surety out of a time that might be best described as having been “chaotic”.

The most obvious areas in which this was demonstrated was his adoption of weekly Open Source Meetings, initially held on Mondays before moving to their current Wednesday slot. These meetings continued alongside other technical in-world meetings such as the Server and Scripter meeting(now the weekly Simulator User Group), which took place even during the drought of other office hours meetings. He also implement the fortnightly Third Party Viewer Development meetings, allow Third Party Viewer developers to discuss all matters relating to the viewer directly with him and members of the Lab’s viewer engineering team.

In 2013, Oz oversaw the complete overhaul of the Lab’s internal viewer develop process, officially called the Viewer Integration and Release Process, which greatly simplified viewer update and viewer feature development. This project also brought me into my first direct contact with Oz when I offered a summary of the new process.  It marked the start of a long and informative acquaintance that I’ve continued to appreciate over the years.

As well as direct contributions to the viewer, Oz also helped open the door to user-led projects aimed at providing broader capabilities for the viewer. While constraints on what could / could not be accepted would always have to be enforced, this approach nevertheless resulted in the adoption of materials in Second Life, and helped to encourage project-based contributions to the viewer that have included capabilities such as the hover height slider, and graphics and camera presets. This approach also included major lab-led projects such as Project Bento also encompass direct user involvement pretty much from their outset.

While it has always been the Lab’s policy to try to recruit personnel from the ranks of users as and when there is a suitable “fit”, in his time at the Lab, Oz has become perhaps one of the most enthusiastic proponents of this approach, frequently seeking – and often succeeding – to recruit qualified users into technical positions under his management.

Oz in his human form. Credit: Linden Lab

As the Lab opted to start work on Project Sansar, Oz decided to pro-actively campaign to take on the work in continuing to develop Second Life, drawing to him those within the Lab who also wished to stay engaged in working on the platform. It is not unfair to say this resulted in one of the most intense periods of Second Life development we have seen, interrupted only be the need to focus on the work of transitioning all of Second Life and its services to run on AWS.

In 2019, Oz – together with Grumpity and Patch Linden – officially joined the Lab’s management team, taking on the role of Vice President of Engineering and putting an official seal on what Grumpity refers to as the Troika: the three of them being largely responsible for determining much of the product and feature direction for Second Life.

In announcing his departure, which sees his last day with the Lab being Friday, February 26th, 2021, Oz states that it has been something he’s been considering for a while:

Some time ago, I reached the point that I could afford to think about retiring but decided to stay to finish moving SL to its new cloud platform. I can’t imagine a better last act in my working life than ensuring that Second Life has this better platform for its future growth. Now that project is done (well, except for a few loose ends), and it’s time for me to move on to the next phase of my life.

He also emphasises – hopefully to prevent the rumour mill turning its wheels – that his decision to leave the Lab is not in any way connected to the company recently being acquired by new investors:

I want to emphasise in the strongest possible terms: my decision has nothing at all to do with the change in ownership of the Lab; the timing really is a coincidence. If anything, I regret that I have overlapped with them for only a few weeks; in that time (and in the time leading up to the change) I have come to respect and appreciate the skills and energy they bring to the company.

For my part, I cannot claim to know Oz as well as I would like to – but I’ve always found find his enthusiasm for Second Life never to be anything less than totally honest and infectious, and his high regard for users utterly genuine and sincere.

As such – and while his actual departure from the Lab is still more than a week away,  – I’d like to take this opportunity to offer him a personal and public “thank you” for all the times he’s provided me with insight and / or encouraged me to get involved in various projects, all of it has been greatly appreciated. I am, and will be, genuinely saddened to see him leave the Lab; we are all losing something in his departure, and the void left will not be easy for the management team to fill.

Second Life land and users in 2020, via Tyche Shepherd

Sunset at home in Second Life

The last few months of 2020 saw Tyche Shepherd release some brief summaries related to Second Life that – as always – make for interesting reading for those interested in the general state of the platform.

In the first, a tweet Tyche issued in October, we were offered insight into general use of the platform in terms of sign-up and concurrency. It came as a the last in a brief series of tweets from Tyche on the subject that started after the Lab indicated that with the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, they were seeing an increase in general usage of the platform, particularly among returning users.

Following-on from Tweets in June -, Tyche confirmed that overall, median concurrency on the platform saw clear growth in March through mid-May (when the first ’bout of lockdowns hit a fair portion of the world  due to the pandemic, before gradually falling through until mid-August, when a further “bump” occurred that lasted through until October (when Tyche made her Tweet). She also showed that overall, median concurrency remained well above that seen in 2019.

SL concurrency, March-October 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

That concurrency is up can be taken as a good sign; it means that more people are engaging in the platform at any given period, allowing greater opportunities for interactions  – which can be particularly important for incoming new users looking for things to do and people to meet. However, it is with regards to the latter that Tyche’s observations have been more mixed.

On the one hand, the second graphic included in her tweet appears to in part confirm commentary from the Lab itself: that 2020 has seen an upswing in the number of users returning to the platform, whilst also suggesting that – again, understandably, given the pandemic – that existing users were spending longer in-world in 2020 that had been the case in recent years. All of which is also to the good (particularly if returning users find reasons to maintain their engagement in the platform once more).

Second Life new user sign-ups 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

However, on the other, the graphic reveals a niggling concern: whilst sign-up have remained relatively stable for a number of years, with occasional peaks and crevasses, 2020 saw a distinct decline in sign-ups from the end of March through until early October, despite an initial spike in sign-ups in the March-April period, again potentially fuelled by the pandemic. In particular, the drop-off not only saw sign-ups fall below the average set in the first two months of 2020, but also fall and remain below average sign-ups seen throughout 2019.

As such, Tyche’s figures tend to suggest that, while the Lab is determined to grow SL’s user base through the attraction of new users – a programme it has, to varying degrees,  indicated it has been focused on since around mid-2019 – there is still a lot to be done in this area, if the hoped-for growth is to be realised. However, this is somewhat tempered by the fact that given the rise in median concurrency is in part fueled by returning users, it demonstrates that the Lab is correct in focusing a portion of its marketing efforts towards former users who have drifted away for one reason or another.

Land use – or more correctly, grid size – is another metric Tyche tracks, providing as she does regular reports on the overall size of the main grid and the comings and goings of both private and “Linden owned” regions. While the relative size of the grid, if looked at in and of itself only, can be a false or misleading indicator of the overall state of SL, tracking the number of private regions does help in building a picture of LL’s core revenue flow – region tier.

On January 3rd, 2021, Tyche tweeted her year-end analysis on private region numbers, revealing that 2020 saw an overall net growth of some 919 private regions (Full and Homestead) through the year, representing a 5.7% increase.

Second Life private regions in 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

The majority of this growth came in two bursts: mid-April through to the end of May (with one significant period of shrinkage during the week to Sunday, May 10th, 2020), and then November-December 2020, immediately following the period of unavailability of new regions through the mid-months of the year resulting from the work transitioning SL to AWS services.

While the increase in the size of the grid is not exceptional when compared to increases seen prior to 2011/2012, it is still positive, indicating that there is a general willingness among users to invest in land, helping the Lab’s bottom line. The uptick in 2020 has meant that when the general reduction of Linden-held regions through the year is taken into account, the total number of regions in the grid grew by 3.3%.

Given the difficulties of 2020, Tyche’s figures tend to show Second Life held its own through what has been what might be termed a less-than-optimal year. With the Lab looking to further ramp-up advertising in 2021 (and perhaps further tweaking of the on-boarding process), it’ll be interesting to see how the overall level of users / size of the grid fares through the year.

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Fourteen years, Oh my!

Contemplating fourteen years

I logged into Second life to receive a greeting from Johan Neddings congratulating my on reaching my fourteen rezday – and I have to state that, but for his IM (And tweet, when I looked at Twitter!), the date honestly would not have registered with me at all.

While I try not to bring the personal and the physical world into this blog too much, the fact is that 2020 has been a real stinker of a year for all of us, thanks in large part to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has impacted so many people around the world in so many ways, and in relation to work and things, I’m no exception. There have also been some personal matters, particularly in the last month or so and which will continue through the next few months to varying degrees, that mean SL is not currently a primary focus for me, although I am trying to keep abreast of news and articles.

Within Second Life, 2020 has certainly been interesting. On the technical front, things have clearly been dominated by Project Uplift and the Lab getting everything transitioned to run on Amazon AWS services. Much could be said about this,but I think the most important aspect to it is that while some remaining services have yet to be migrated, and we have yet to go through a period of fine-tuning / performance tweaking, overall, the entire process has been really smooth. Yes, there are some visible teething problems that need to be sorted, but when you consider there were a fair few SL services transitioned to AWS without users ever noticing they had been moved, LL have done a really good job with what might have been a really disruptive undertaking.

Of course, one of the visible changes to SL that has come along this year is EEP – the Environment Enhancement Project. While this also has some issues that are still to be sorted (and some UI niggles that may not be, given they tend to be subjective in nature), I’ve found it to be a very flexible and usable capability, if a bit of a beast to get one’s head around at first. I’ve particularly had fun creating a number of personal Fixed Sky environments, as well a 24-hour  day/night cycle for Isla Caitinara (and I will at some point get back to my tutorial on Day Cycles, which has again be pushed to one side due to the aforementioned physical world matters).

A gibbous Moon rising over Isla Caitinara, part of the Day Cycle for our island home

On the personal SL front, things have been pretty quiet. Circumstance / opportunity led to us shifting home to settle within the “new” Second Norway estate, now under the management of Vanity Bonetto and her team (which also includes Ey and his team), and as someone who has followed that entire situation from initial rumours through the takeover to becoming a resident there, I can honestly say Vanity and her team have done a superb job, both in maintaining the core of the estate in its “mainland” regions, and in revamping the estate’s island offerings, and in bringing in new opportunities and features to the estate, as I noted in Second Norway: a closer look. In fact, we’re so settled that we actually recently up and relocated to a slightly larger island within the estate!

2020 also saw me unexpectedly get involved in administrating an in-worlds arts group – the Phoenix Artists Collaboration. Things  haven’t gone quite as well as had been hoped, particularly in the area of exhibitions, largely due to all three of us who have taken on the responsibility for managing the group all being hit with physical world demands. But hopefully, once the page has turned to mark the start of 2021, we’ll be able to start properly pulling things together.

The garden of our new Isla Caitinara home
Fourteen years in Second Life is a long time, so do I have any insights to share? Oddly, no I don’t think I do. Second life is still offering me the three things I enjoy: fun, discovery and freedom, so I’ve little doubt I’ll be marking 15 years in-world in twelve months time. Perhaps the one thing I would say is that while fourteen years have passed since “Inara Pey” first arrived, I actually don’t feel any older than my first days in-world with her. Wiser (I hope!) perhaps, yes.  But not older. In this, I think my avatar has been a positive influence; largely unchanged in terms of looks for 10 of those years, she has – as past studies have pointed out in reference to people and their avatars – she has encouraged the vanity in me to exercise regularly and (generally!) mind my diet in an attempt to (in my own way) also look as good.

And of the future? perhaps the most burning question is that of Linden Lab and Second Life post the current acquisition process.

As I’ve noted before, I’m interested to see the overall shape of the revised board, and whether or not some current members will retain a minority holding. I’m not overly concerned about the risk of LL being stripped or sold on; as I’ve noted in these pages, the two incoming principals between them have good track records for long-term investment and company growth. Certainly, the Lab aren’t slowing down their own plans for SL: beyond / alongside of the “uplift” work, there are major plans for overhauling several aspects of the viewer to hopefully make it more performant and efficient, and projects to further improve things on the back-end as well. Much of this  work is fairly long-term, which speaks to a good level of confidence for the platform’s future, and I currently see no reason not to share in that confidence.

In the meantime, here’s to a happier time of things in general in 2021.

Linden Lab’s acquisition: sundry thoughts & speculation

via lawdonut.co.uk

It’s been a week since the news broken that Linden Lab is in the process of being acquired by new owners (see Linden Lab announces it is to be acquired, July 9th, 2020). Since then there has been a lot of comments and speculation ranging from the entirely positive to the inevitable “we’re doomed! / the sky is falling!”

Some have raised concerns that neither J. Randall Waterfield nor Brad Oberwager have experience with running games companies. However, having hands-on experience in running the type of company in which you’re investing isn’t actually a prerequisite for funding / representing / guiding it. Rather, what’s important is having the ability to understand the company, appreciate its value proposition and being able to contribute to its continued growth; and both Mr. Oberwager and Mr. Waterfield appear to have these abilities. In particular, J. Randall Waterfield, as CEO of the Waterfield Group, comes from an environment where long-term investment in companies to ensure their growth is very much the raison d’etre.

Waterfield buys and builds well-run American businesses.
We prefer basic businesses with a few years of proven, conservative growth. We avoid companies that are growing too fast. We believe slow and steady makes the race… We strive to be a good partner to existing management, are passive with regards to general managerial issues, and work hard to help our CEOs and their families’ realize their vision.
Waterfield’s investment timeframe is forever. We work to grow book value at a reasonable pace with no exit in mind.

– from the About / Investment Criteria page of Waterfield

Now, to be clear, it’s not the Waterfield Group that is investing in Linden Research, but rather a venture between Mr. Waterfield and Mr. Oberwager; but given Mr. Waterfield’s pedigree with long-term investment, is hard not to see him taking the same approach in his other ventures.

Nor should the fact that Mr. Oberwager has sold off three of the businesses he’s built be seen as a negative. Building a company from the ground up is a different matter to investing in an established, profitable entity, and selling the former in order to repeat the cycle isn’t automatically indicative of a intent to buy-in to an existing company simply to sell it on without a longer-term commitment.

Which is not to say a buy-out like this isn’t without risk; with the best will in the world on the part of incoming investors to a company, things don’t always go as planned or turn out as hoped – but planning for failure isn’t generally how investors set about acquiring profitable companies.

A further point to remember is that acquiring a company isn’t something that happens overnight; it can actually take multiple months or even years to progress from an initial decision to sell, through reaching an agreement in principle, to that final closure.

Due Diligence means investors are rarely unaware of the business they are about to invest in

One big part of this process is due diligence, a process designed to make potential investors precisely aware of what they are getting themselves into – things that might alter the deal, such as revealing unwanted risks or unwelcome financial exposure that they might wish to see properly mitigated prior to proceeding further. This means that incoming investors are rarely coming into a company flying blind or are suddenly going to find themselves facing an unwelcome wake-up call that might leave them re-evaluating their desire to retain the company.

On a more interesting – to me at least – level is that given the length of time an acquisition can take – even if measured over months, rather than years – is how closely the decision to sell Sansar might have been tied to the decision to offer Linden Research up for acquisition.

Simply put and despite the effort already put into Sansar, it still has a long way to go before it is likely to establish a sold income-generating business model, and therefore represents a significant revenue sink hole of unknown depth. As such, it would make sense for the Lab to divest itself of Sansar prior to putting itself up for acquisition; doing to removes the uncertainty around that platform whilst leaving the company with a demonstratively profitable product (Second Life) and a second that is just starting to show its potential (Tilia Inc.). Depending on the time frames of the two events, the sale of Sansar might even have been a pre-requisite put in place by the new investors to limit potential risk raised through the due diligence process.

Following the acquisition announcement, there were questions asked through the forums, etc., on why would a profitable company be put up for sale, and statements (such as can be seen in comments on this blog) that you “don’t sell a profitable company”.

Well the fact is that profitable private companies are routinely sold for a variety of reasons, and none of them are “bad” or “negative”. For example, and leaving aside the point that the fact a company is profitable obviously makes it more attractive, a sale can be because the current owners wish to exit the company entirely to pursue other opportunities; or they may simply want reduce their overall holdings in the company as part of a general change in lifestyle, whilst leaving the company with the ability to continue operating successfully (and in the case of the latter, still have their experience / expertise available, should it be needed).

I’m not about to try to second guess what reasoning is at work in the case of Linden Research, but  I am curious as to the shape of the board once the acquisition has been finalised. Will it be just the two new investors (which seems likely), or will one or two of the remaining board remain?

Obviously, how things pan out will only become clear over time, but overall (and such is my nature as a “glass half full” person) I lean towards the feeling that the coming change for Linden Research will prove to be positive.