Virtual business

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Beyond the realm of virtual escorts, real estate agents, and other entrepreneurial start-ups, the Second Life business world has been traditionally dominated by the largest of the real-world companies.

Australian telecommunications incumbent Telstra last year launched what was said to be the country’s first major corporate presence in the online virtual world. Dubbed “the Pond”, Telstra’s Second Life islands aim to encourage customer interaction while creating new sales and marketing opportunities.

Spanning multiple islands, and estimated to cost more than $20,000 at launch, Telstra’s Second Life presence features virtual recreations of iconic national landmarks such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Opera House, the Outback and Uluru.

"Second Life is a very compelling package offering entertainment, creative collaboration and business possibilities,” said Justin Milne, who is the Managing Director of BigPond Group.

"We've already seen how rapidly user-generated content has gained popularity online, in particular through our interactive BigBlogs and Game Arena,” he said.

"Now we're taking a glimpse of what the internet of the future could be like - driven by user-determined experience.”

Telstra’s vision of the future looks to be shared by the likes of IBM, Cisco, Sun Microsystems and Dell, which each have launched their respective Second Life presences for a mixed bag of purposes including staff recruitment, research and development, marketing and customer support.

Outside of the Fortune 500 big league, however, corporate uptake of virtual worlds has been less enthusiastic. On top of Linden Labs’s real estate hosting prices of US$1,675 per island, businesses can expect to pay US$295 per month in maintenance fees per island, not to mention the costs of hiring Second Life developers and support staff.

Open source opens virtual doors

In hopes of making the Second Life metaverse more palatable to businesses, enterprise solutions provider Clever Zebra has developed ready-made corporate complexes that it has made available under the Open Source GPL license.

Clever Zebra was founded last year by virtual worlds enthusiast Nick Wilson, on the principle of promoting virtual worlds as a platform for business. The company operates with the simple idea of “disrupting the way development in virtual worlds currently works”.

With the goal of making it easy and inexpensive for companies to work in virtual environments, Clever Zebra offers free copies of the buildings, code and tools that organizations need to develop their own Second Life presences.

Monetary opportunities for Clever Zebra come from additional paid offerings such as customisation, branding, installation, and training.

“I’m fond of the phrase "a rising tide lifts all boats" when describing our philosophy,” Wilson said.

“Unless we make this stuff easy and cheap, we'll never get anywhere, and it [virtual worlds] will only ever be the domain of large companies with six-figure research and development budgets.”

“I think the most valuable thing we have to offer is service, not architecture or code. By making it [the code] free, we make it easier for any company to come in here and experiment, to use SL for what we know it's good for: meetings, distance learning, etc,” he said.

It’s an odd tack on the virtual world business model, especially when compared to traditional virtual businesses whose profits are derived solely from in-world development work.

Wilson believes Clever Zebra to be the only enterprise solutions provider of its kind, adding that the company has received a mixed response to its business model from the wider Second Life community.

“Some folks love us, evangelize us, work with us and hang out with us while we do this stuff. Some folks hate us, think we're the death knell for the SL economy and go out of their way to tell people that,” he said.

“I think it's a pretty good balance. I’m happy to produce products that cause so much passion at either end. I figure we must be doing something right.”

Clever Zebra will this month launch Version 1.0 of its open source development kit, which includes a corporate complex, presentation halls, roads, showrooms and meeting areas.

The company currently spans five Second Life islands with its free, open source corporate architecture, providing ample room to its four staff members who perform all their work in-game.

“We really do work here [in Clever Zebra’s Second Life office],” Wilson boasts. “None of our company have met any of the others; we work from Denmark, Canada and the US and have never met physically.”

The tastefully designed headquarters and has all the appearances of a real-life office, and features numerous workspaces, glass-walled meeting rooms, casual sitting areas in which red couches surround glass coffee tables, and wall art.

“We actually find that by mimicking a real-life office, we get that wonderful effect of spontaneous interaction, and a lot of ideas and information get shared that would never have by just using email, instant message or some kind of teleconference gear,” Wilson said.

“It feels like we all work together in the same space, and get a lot done by just being close to one another.”

Dubbed “Zebra Corporate”, the kit has taken the four-person company some months to build, and has been in quiet beta for the past few weeks. Already, Wilson is aware of three users of Zebra Corporate, including Non Profit Commons, Coventry University's Serious Games Institute, and recruitment firm Kelly Services.

Virtual discussion

Meanwhile, information technology analyst firm Gartner is warning businesses against investing too heavily in Linden Labs’s metaverse.

Citing hardware requirements, server downtime, security, and identity authentication as potential issues, Gartner analysts have advised businesses to carefully consider the risks of establishing virtual operations when faced with the virtual world hype.

"The risks enterprises face as a result of their involvement in virtual worlds are real and can be significant," said Steve Prentice, vice president and analyst at Gartner.

"When planning enterprise activities in virtual worlds, an enterprise's awareness of the risks, as well as a reasoned and objective analysis of them, will enable it to objectively evaluate the overall situation and offset risks against often-nebulous benefits," he said.

The highly interactive world of Second Life could pose brand marketing problems for companies that are particularly sensitive to brand issues, as well as social and ethical positioning, Gartner analysts say, suggesting the use of more heavily moderated virtual worlds such as There, Kaneva and Activeworlds.

By the end of 2009, Gartner predicts that other, more scalable virtual environments will emerge as attractive alternatives to Second Life. Sony’s forthcoming Home, a free-to-download, three-dimensional community for Playstation3 users worldwide that has been planned for launch early this year, was named as one such alternative.

"Second Life is acceptable for pilots and prototypes," said James Lundy, managing vice president at Gartner.

"However, current technical issues would have a significant impact on any organisation that wanted to use it in a production environment, and we are advising companies to evaluate alternatives."

To discuss the potentials and issues to do with the corporate uptake of Second Life, Clever Zebra is hosting an in-world vBusiness Expo.

The four-day-long conference will be held in the largest of Clever Zebra’s ampitheatres from April 24 to 27, and will feature keynote presentations by Erica Driver, principal analyst with Forrester Research; Sandra Kearney, IBM’s Global Director of Emerging 3D Internet and Virtual Business; and David Fenech, Senior Director of Internet Services with Kelly Services.

A separate panel about the value of virtual worlds in the enterprise will be chaired by Gartner's Prentice, and bootcamps for virtual world newbies will run in the lead up to the conference.

Among other guests are Qwaq Forums’s CEO Greg Nuyens, and Nicole Yankelovich, Sun Microsystems principal investigator of collaborative environments, who was responsible for Sun's own virtual world, Project Wonderland.

“This will be the first large scale virtual worlds business event [to be] actually hosted in a virtual world,” Clever Zebra’s Wilson said.

“The other conferences want to talk about virtual worlds, but won’t actually eat the dog food as well,” he said with a laugh.

Having just past the first birthday of his Second Life avatar, 57 Miles, Wilson has great expectations of the future of virtual worlds, and big plans for Clever Zebra.

“I discovered Second Life at the start of 2007,” he recalled. “Within six weeks, I’d quit my social media startup to work with Virtual Worlds.”

“I think this, or something like it will eventually become a huge part of everybody’s online daily lives, and I want to be involved in it, and influencing it, right from the start.”

“We [Clever Zebra] will be working on vBusiness Expo, and vBusiness Legal [conference] the following month, as events are what fuel SL,” he said. “We also want to build a pretty vast repository of high quality corporate and educational architecture and tools, and will keep working on the library.”

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