Linden Lab is to make some of the code which powers its online game Second Life available under the GPL.
Linden Lab CTO Cory Ondrejka said: "Open sourcing is the most important decision we’ve made in seven years of Second Life development. While it is clearly a bold step for us to proactively decide to open source our code, it is entirely in keeping with the community-creation approach of Second Life."
Only the Second Life "Viewer" will be opened up however; the platform itself will remain locked up on Linden Lab's servers. The firm will maintain an official Viewer, assimilating innovations from the open source community when it sees fit.
In a play to the self-congratulatory mindset that seems to typify the Second Life marketing machine Ondrejka said: "Second Life has the most creative and talented group of users ever assembled and it is time to allow them to contribute to the Viewer’s development."
The Viewer was already provided free to users in the hope that they will be convinced to pay to become "landowners" in Second Life. Linden Lab has wisely stopped well short of opening up its server software; such a move would bring its business model into serious question by breaking this feudal system, since coders would be able to create their own "islands" free of charge.
While keen to trumpet its new policy of semi-glasnost, the last thing Linden Lab would be able to handle is perestroika in Second Life.
Added to that, in a fully open source Second Life, "Residents" of renegade islands would no longer necessarily be subject to Linden Lab's rules, which it enforces from its headquarters in San Francisco. Like any despot, Linden Labs will be anxious to maintain its powers of punishment; recently the virtual theme park has seen a malicious "grey goo" attack, and seen its self-aggrandising journalist community assailed by flying penises.
So this first shuffle into open source could set a dangerous precedent for Linden Lab. By giving its punters the freedom to tinker with the Viewer, it could instigate a more concerted push to open up the whole caboodle. The firm will be hoping instead the consequences of releasing the Viewer code will be limited to it getting free bug fixes and ports to unexploited platforms; so users might spend real world money from their mobile, for example.
Of course, either way there will be a distinct lack of consequence for all but a few thousand hardcore Second Lifers. Still, at least they'll have something to talk about.®