Rodvik’s tough future

So, according to Bob Kumin, or BK Linden as LL’s CFO / COO is known “in-world” (I use the latter term lightly, as I believe he’s actually been in-world um, once since his arrival at LL, and even then had very little to say), Rod Humble – potentially to be called Rodvik Linden, according to some – arrived at Battery Street yesterday. This has prompted some (going on the in-world traffic I was privy to yesterday) to start demanding “where is he?” and “Typical…no announcement from him”, etc.

Well…hang on! Give the poor sod a chance.

There has been lots of “free” advice handed out to Mr. Humble since the announcement of his appointment last month. When you push aside all the (inevitable) bitching about this and that, there is to be sure, a lot of sage advice contained within the responses to the announcement.

Similarly, Profoky Neva started a nice little thread in the blogs, urging three-word recommendations for Rodvik to consider. Sadly, I cannot link to the same any more, as it has, in the mysterious ways of the official forums, been deleted for some reason. Again, while there was much hoo-ing and ha-ing among the posts there, there were many replies that had more than a ring of validity about them.

But – and here’s the rub – the fact that both the comments posted to the announcement and Prokofy’s own thread did contain so much in the way of contradicting viewpoints (“Ditch Viewer 2!” vs. “Viewer 2 is great!”; “Forget Mesh!” vs. “SL needs Mesh!”; “Stop making SL inaccessible to older computers!” vs. “SL needs to keep up with technology!” and so on) that, even without the vitriol, one can see the problem Rod(vik) faces even if he merely glances at the replies.

…listening to the users isn’t actually always the best thing…

We’ve all – myself included – repeatedly called for LL to “listen” to its user base (well, I’ll actually redefine that slightly – I’ve been calling for LL to engage and communicate with us – both of which, dare I say, are somewhat more involved (on both sides!), than simply “listening”). But, what exactly does this mean, and how should LL go about it?

As Tateru Nino points out so well, users themselves have such widely varied views on things, that seeking broad-ranging input from them can – whether we like it or not – lead to as much confusion, angst and anger from said users when the outcome is announced, as simply not seeking input in the first place.

Take, for example, two of the most common cries in the responses to Rod Humble’s appointment as CEO. On the one hand people are loudly shouting for the “trashing” of Viewer 2; on the other, people are praising it. Similarly, and more vociferously, we have people loudly proclaiming that Mesh “isn’t needed”, and other citing very valid reasons why it is.

How do you reconcile such entrenched, widely differing views without pissing off at least 50% of your audience?

Of course these two examples are extremes, and to be fair, a large proportion of the “anti” lobby in both comes down to a simple unwillingness to change on the part of those voicing the objections. For example, many of those denouncing Viewer 2 do so on the basis of “having tried it for 10 minutes” before giving up – yet I wonder, when they first joined SL, how long it took them to get to grips with Viewer 1.x? Longer than 10 minutes, I’ll warrant; so why the impatience now?

But leaving aside the extreme position of these views, it does demonstrate the tightrope Humble has to walk, just where the users are concerned – and as Tateru amply demonstrates in her column with a simple little exercise.

Of course, there are “obvious” things that need to be done: stability, performance in general, smoothing out sim boundary crossings, etc., – but these are “easy” as we all see and feel them. What about the more complex? How does LL make SL more attractive, immersive, engaging, exciting – fun – for the “lay” user?

The answers here are far more difficult: ask ten people and get 10 different replies. Add to this the fact that Rod Humble isn’t just “answerable” to the users – he is in his post at the leisure of a Board that at times seems both remote from the realities of Second Life and somewhat hostile towards the user base. As such, he is responsible for heeding their collective will and turning their whims into realities – making any potential balancing act on his part, that much harder (the needs of the few (the Board) will always outweigh the needs of the many, if I might be permitted to paraphrase a certain Vulcan).

All this being the case, I’m not surprised that he hasn’t suddenly bounced into the official blogs announcing this, that and the other. Anyone with any common sense, whether they have been looking around in-world or not, whether they’ve been hopping in and out of the Battery Street offices over the last few weeks or not, whether they’ve been involved at all with the inner machinations of LL or not even from arm’s length – is going to need time to get into the office, settle down and take a studied look at what is going on and how things really work.

If nothing else, the legacy of Mark Kingdon would encourage anyone entering the role to do so with some caution. After all, he was trumpeted in by the likes of Philip Rosedale, who went on to talk about him in glowing terms – sharing the same pod, being of the same mind, etc., etc.,  – and look how that finished up (and don’t go blaming Kingdon purely for the way things went).

Given all of the above, I’m actually not that surprised nothing has been heard of from Mr. Humble as yet (and that’s taking it for granted that he did arrive OK yesterday as the new CEO); he’s going to need time to get properly to grips with things before (one would hope) he starts making massive pronouncements on just about anything.

But, that said, it would be nice just to get a quick “hello!” from him, coupled with a short statement confirming he’s “here” and perhaps asking for our understanding while he does get settled at his desk and takes time to settle in.


How do *you* define stability?

In my last piece, I questioned who, exactly, is minding the store. While my question was primarily aimed at SL Marketplace, which continues to acquire JIRAs and unanswered pleas for help, it also applied more widely to the grid in general.

Recently, LL introduced a slew of ideas in order to “enhance” our SL pleasure and promise “greater” stability. All of these initiatives were launched under Philip Rosedale’s brief “return” as the CEO. Outside of Snowstorm, which is enjoying moderate success, few seem to have actually worked.

The new policy of small fixes rolled out weekly? Nope. Not from where I’m standing at least. Rather the reverse. Now, as well as putting up with the weekly irritation of Second Life’s weekend performance gradually degrading between Friday and Sunday, I’m now finding my Tuesdays and Wednesdays routinely buggered up by rolling restarts for Magum, le Tigre, Blue Cheese, White Knuckles – or whatever the heck the latest codename for a “fix” is called – to the point where no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’m experiencing inventory errors, failed teleports and other issues.

Similarly, even the big roll-outs continue to irritate, with teleports continuing to fail some 24 hours after the “all clear” has been given. We’re also again hearing about things like the Mono freeze-up still being “fixed”. Excuse me, wasn’t this sorted out a few months ago, among some fanfare, and wasn’t there a posting about it having been sorted?

So why is it, in the last week or so, many people are reporting the sim they are on routinely freezing up again when someone teleports in? Has a new “fix” now broken something again? Wasn’t the new strategy supposed to stop this?

Mark Kingdon was guilty of several faults during his tenure at LL as CEO – but once thing he did stand watch over was a drive to improve performance and stability.

So what on Earth is going on now?

Avatars disunited

A semi-interesting e-mail pinged up this evening, thus:

Dear Avatars United Member,

In January of this year, Linden Lab purchased Avatars United for its underlying social technology and to integrate powerful social networking capabilities into the Second Life experience.

Today, we have made the difficult decision to discontinue Avatars United and will be taking down the site on September 29, 2010. Over the next week, we encourage you to save any pieces of content (such as pictures, friend’s names, etc.) that you want to keep. We will also soon update you on your AU Coin refund, if you have an account balance.

Over the two and a half years since launching Avatars United, we have welcomed avatars from many virtual worlds and MMOs to connect on our platform as the only social network catering to the needs of virtual identities. We are proud to have served those needs and honoured to have shared this journey with you all.

Going forward, pieces of the Avatars United technology will be integrated into the Second Life platform to support a richer, and more dynamic, community experience. Read more about these efforts on theSecond Life blog.

Thank you for being a member of the Avatars United community, and part of the Second Life family.

The Avatars United/Second Life Team

Am I surprised? No. Even at the height of the Mark Kingdon “inspired” (if wrongly attributed) push that “SL = Facebook = SL”, the purchase of Avatars United seemed a little odd, even for Linden Lab, despite the latter suffering an identity crisis of its own at the time.

While there was some potential for Avatars United to enhance Second Life, the fact remains that it always was the square-peg-meets-round-hole situation for Linden Lab in terms of offering those of us already engaged in Second Life with anything truly beneficial. Similarly, as a marketing tool to draw others involved in on-line games into Second Life, its value was perhaps less than useful.

That LL had no idea as to what they should do with their new shiny once they had it was perhaps most clearly indicated by the massive flurry of Linden activity over on AU that dropped off faster than a rock disappearing over the cliff as the novelty of the new toy wore off to be replaced by the taxing question, “OK, so we’ve got it, not what do we actually do with it?” In fairness LL were not alone; the number of us who probably did the same is likely to be legion.

I’m actually surprised that AU has lasted this long; to be honest, I can’t even bid it a fond farewell.

Starting over, or papering over?

Philip Rosedale today makes his first “official” blog post as the “returning” interim CEO (I use quotes around “returning” because face it – he never really left) – and it makes interesting reading.

The positive is that we once again seem to be moving to an era where Linden Lab is at least communicating to its user base. While Mark Kingdon cannot in any way be blamed for all of the woes that have struck Second Life since 2008 (for reasons I’ve mentioned before), it cannot be denied that one major failing within the Lab under his leadership was in the matter of open communication. Direct engagement with users whether in-world or via the blogs was a rarity. Kingdon himself didn’t really directly interact, talk to and listen to users in depth until February of this year – and then only once, albeit with a broadly positive interaction. While in the blogs, Lindens would occasionally appear, blog, and comment – but they turned cherry picking posts to which they’d respond into something worthy of the best politicians – if not an art form in its own right.

Now we have what amounts to – one the surface at least – some soul-searching from Philip, starting with his SL7B address and moving on to this blog entry which includes the welcome announcement of the possible return of Town Hall meetings – the (hopefully) first of which is to be held before the end of July.

Now, whether the old Town Hall meetings actually achieved anything or not can be debated; some will say almost certainly that they did, others will say that on the whole they were little more than PR and that the issues and directions for the future had already been determined within the Lab, and so feedback from such meetings would have little overall impact on matters.

While I’ll be returning to the first part of this view in a wider context in a moment, I have to say that  – in terms of the Town Hall meetings themselves – the fact that LL may not themselves taken much away from them that altered perceptions or thinking was entirely beside the point.

What the Town Halls did – and did well – was give those attending a sense of involvement with the Lab and with the future of SL as a whole. People felt engaged and motivated. While this may not have vastly altered the plans and ideas presented at such meetings (and I don’t necessarily subscribe to the viewpoint that the impact was minimal), the fact that people came away from them feeling engaged and having had the opportunity to say their piece doubtless contributed to the overall “good vibes” they had about SL.

However – and there is always an “however” – note that I did use the term “communication to” rather than “communicating with” users. The distinction here is important. Again, many of those who place blame for their woes squarely on the shoulders of Mark Kingdon should take heed: prioritised targets in Philip’s new strategy are – wait for it – the New User Experience (TM) and Viewer 2.1.

Yes, folks – Mark Kingdon may have gone, but his so-called “big mistakes” will roll forward regardless of anything you may say, think, feel or emote. The strategy around these was set a long time ago, and not by Mark Kingdon – but by Philip and the rest of the Board. While we may see some tinkering here and there and the odd shift in emphasis, rest assured neither is going to go away and nor is the Lab going to be swayed very far from the course it has set for itself.

And why should they, with regards to either of these things? Considerable time, effort and money have been invested in both. Frankly, LL would do itself far more damage by abandoning either than in sticking to their guns and trying to get both to work. and while they may have struck their collective thumb with a very heavy hammer in pushing Viewer 2 to far to fast – the fact that Philip has acknowledged this and is committing to rectifying matters is positive.

So, like it or lump it, Viewer 2 is here to stay. Now the important thing is to make sure that whatever voice we have is used to ensure genuine issues and concerns – Search and the rest – are heard clearly by Philip and LL and put towards the promised improvements.

Beyond this, Philip also identifies grid concerns as a major area of focus. While welcome news, this is not actually anything new. Frank Ambrose (F Linden) and the team have been hard at work on this issue throughout 2009/10 – and it has to be said that overall, the results have been significant. Yes there are still issues relating to smooth sim boundary crossings, some people still experience issues around Tping due to Mono attachments and the like – but on the whole, the grid is subject to far fewer outages, downtime and other glitches than ever before, and most of us – when push comes to shove – are enjoying a much better overall experience.

That said, there are still core issues that need looking at – even if they are much harder to address – as the recent series of server roll-outs / roll-backs from 1.36 through to 1.40.2 have more than demonstrated. And this is what I would hope Philip is referring to in identifying stability and performance as major points in the “new” strategy (simply because ensuring the grid is stable shouldn’t so much be a part of “new” strategies as it should be a part of “standard operating procedures”). It be sure, ensuring that every new release isn’t going to have some adverse effect on the main grid is a difficult thing to achieve: the beta grid is, after all, much smaller than the main grid and doubtless less impacted by things such as massive script usage, all-out combat scenarios, etc., – so missing potentially damaging flaws in new releases is a complex issue. But LL do have a habit of bundling comprehensive bug fixes together with new releases, so one cannot help but wonder if it would not be better to take a more cautious approach – as Philip seems to indicate, and reserve bug fix releases simply for that purpose and keep “big” features (such as Havoc 7) reserved for their own dedicated release – and then focusing interim releases primarily on fixing problems the new release has created incrementally.

The other major comment Philip makes is around the issue of XStreet / the SL Marketplace. This is interesting because the latter has come under much fire – and it has to be said that Grant Linden has been making a stupendous effort to engage with those with a huge spread of issues (many genuine, some perceived, a few down to simple confusion) and ensure that the appropriate feedback is given. Taken together with his actions, Philip’s comment should do much to reassure all of us that – again while LL are not going to abandon SLM as some of the wilder demands are insisting – the Lab is going to make every effort to ensure the new Marketplace is up to meeting its intended use and will be seen to be an overall improvement on XSL.

Taken as a whole, the blog post is broadly positive and encouraging. It indicates that while LL may not be moving away from its chosen path to any significant degree, some inside the organisation are willing to hold up a hand and state mea culpa and admit that the company needs to rescale its plans to a size that matches its actual capabilities and that whether they like it or not, at some point they are going to have to start, at least in some measure, back to engaging with the “pesky kids” (i.e. you and me) who run around their grid creating mischief.

I’ll be looking towards Philip’s planned Town Hall (or whatever he is going to now call it) in the expectation that what we’re seeing here is something of a genuine “back to basics” rather than another attempt to paper over the cracks which have now reached a size where even those in the lofty heights at LL can no longer ignore.