Experts predict that 80 percent of active web users and Fortune 500 enterprises will have a virtual "second life" by the end of 2011, but not necessarily in Second Life.
Enterprises cannot afford to ignore virtual worlds, according to Gartner, but most should limit financial investments until the environments stabilise and mature.
"The collaborative and community-related aspects of these environments will dominate in the future, and significant transaction-based commercial opportunities will be limited to niche areas which have yet to be clearly identified," said Steve Prentice, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.
"However, the majority of active internet users and major enterprises will find value in participating in this area in the coming years."
Prentice added that the meaningful corporate use of public virtual worlds is likely to lag "considerably" behind individual consumer use as enterprises struggle to develop appropriate and relevant business models.
Gartner asserts that virtual worlds are not games, but neither are they yet "parallel universes".
"Growth in virtual worlds is significant but lower than it appears. The overall population of non-game virtual worlds is still small compared to massively multi-user online games and the totality of community-oriented and niche-targeted environments," Prentice said.
Although many commercial companies have established a virtual world presence, none has converted it into an effective and profitable sales channel, Gartner noted.
"Do not expect to undertake profitable commercial activities inside most virtual worlds in the next three years," Prentice warned.
The analyst added that enterprises face serious questions, such as whether activities in the virtual world undermine or influence their organisation/brand in the real world.
With significant portions of the virtual economy based on adult-oriented activities, questions of appropriate behaviour and ethics also surface, according to Prentice.
Gartner recommends that enterprises should view virtual worlds as a "long haul" experiment. They should not plan large projects, and should look for community benefits rather than commerce.
"Find enthusiasts within your enterprise and support them. Understand the implications for access to open virtual platforms from within the enterprise and the risks involved," said Prentice.
"Despite the concerns within companies, do not ignore this trend. It will have a significant impact on your enterprise during the next five years."
Most web users to have 'second life' by 2011
By Robert Jaques on Apr 27, 2007 2:00PM