Viewers, Viewers, Viewers: A Way Out of This Mess

Sunday, September 5, 2010 Sunday, September 05, 2010

Readers may have noticed controversies and discussions over Second Life viewer software in recent weeks and months. In some cases scandal, in others too much change, still others are simply inoperable in many situations. A constant question is, "which viewer should I use". There have been many answers - as many as there are viewers. Clearly there's lots of opinions and few are satisfied.

Meanwhile, new users continue to have challenges learning the environment. Let's face it: SL and 3D worlds are quite a different experience and it takes time for people to get accustomed to using them. Linden Lab knows this, since we've observed them trying to address that problem by deploying the controversial Viewer 2.0.

Viewer 2.0 seems to work for some, and yet not for others. Why is this so?

I've thought this for a long time now, and I'll say it again: there are two different audiences making use of viewers. First there's the new residents, who are frequently confused by the complexity of the interface, give up and never return, and the experienced existing residents, who yearn for more function to customize or simplify their sophisticated virtual existence.

Here's the problem we've been having all along: we're trying to service two entirely different audiences with a single viewer. Hence, Linden Lab creates Viewer 2.0, which includes features designed to simplify life for new residents, while still trying to address the needs of experienced residents. In my opinion, it didn't go nearly far enough in the simplicity direction for new residents. In the opinion of many long-time residents, Viewer 2.0 confused their operations and made their complex virtual lives more difficult. Viewer 2.0 missed the mark for both audiences.

While Viewer 2.0 marginally improved the experience for new residents, it was rejected by a great many experienced residents, a vast number of whom fled to use a variety of third party viewers. Unfortunately, one of the major third party viewers ran into issues and many residents now scramble to find an alternate viewer - and many of them wouldn't consider Linden Lab's Viewer 2.0.

I've seen situations like this before many times in real life, and a good solution approach is to realize the root cause and directly address it. In this case the root cause of viewer difficulties is that there are two audiences that have very different requirements. Thus, the answer is quite simple: we need Two Viewers, one greatly simplified suitable for stark newbies devoid of advanced and confusing features, and the other a more complex viewer filled with all the features one could imagine.

Of course, the challenge will be that Linden Lab is able to muster resources only sufficient to support one viewer. Right now, their efforts try to do it all for everyone, addressing both audiences but in fact doing so in a less than optimal manner.

Here's my proposal to make life a lot easier for everyone: Linden Lab should abandon development of the advanced viewer entirely and leave it to evolve independently by third parties through open source approaches. Publish and maintain a secure specification for accessing the grid and the underlying open source code, and let others do the job of building advanced viewers. This has worked in the world of web browsers and many other environments; why not here too? To some extent, we've already seen this happening, albeit somewhat placed in shadow by Linden Lab's highly visible Viewer 2.0, often selected by residents simply because Linden Lab made it. But imagine how well these third party viewers could advance if they weren't competing against Linden Lab's viewers?

Meanwhile, Linden Lab could then focus efforts on a truly simplified viewer specifically designed for new residents, one that could actually achieve the vision of "five minutes and you're in" that really has no chance of happening in Viewer 2.0. Consider how well they might do if they didn't have to worry about including all the features required by existing residents. New users could "graduate" to one of the more advanced viewers when they feel confident enough to do so.

Let's make things simpler for everyone. Linden Lab desperately needs a simplified viewer; Residents want (and have proven they can make) an advanced viewer. For me, two viewers is the obvious solution. What do you think?

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