Not There Any More

Launched at about the same time as Second Life, There.com used to be seen as “SL’s little brother”. For a long time it used to be compared with Second Life as one of the few serious competitors out there, in the sense that it was a long runner, that outlasted the period of venture capital funding. While the avatars and overall scenario was of inferior quality compared to SL — even in 2004-6 — it had at least three major advantages over SL: vehicles worked quite well; you could have a tighter control over your environment and friends (e.g. “the grieferless utopia”) which made MTV select it over SL for its Virtual Laguna Beach project, alleging that Linden Lab didn’t give MTV the kind of tools to enforce a rigid control over users and content; and it was stupidly simple to use. It also had a way for users to engage with the community and get “ratings” and “goals” to follow doing social activity (something which recently was brought up for SL as well).

There.com, unlike many other virtual worlds who were just a passing fad (like Metaverse!), also had a solid business model — so solid, in fact, that they managed to split off the “technology” part of There.com and resell the VW engine as a separate product (OLIVE) under a different company, Forterra, which has been quite successful, selling licenses to the US Army and government, and satrted to diverge from the original product very quickly. Ironically, Forterra now sold OLIVE to SAIC.

There.com’s future started to become cloudy once several programmers and the original founder, Will Harvey, left There.com to found IMVU, which continues to be a huge success, has twice the number of registered users than Second Life, and the last time I checked, almost as many items for sale on their web-based content shop as LL’s XStreetSL (which, as we all know, only shows a very small amount of all content available for sale in SL). Still, I incorrectly predicted that There.com would “live forever”, the major reasoning behind my claims being that their subscription-based model would allow There.com to operate indefinitely thanks to their very loyal customer base. The theory worked for almost four years. There.com didn’t grow in size, but it also didn’t grow in costs. It remained a niche VW, but that’s fine — it’s far better to have a financially sound business model behind a niche market than to expand to the mainstream and utterly fail.

Loyalty, however, seemed not to be enough. Unlike my most optimistic predictions, There.com announced that it would close operations on March 9th, 2010. Ironically, except for the odd SL blogger, the news of the end of There.com seemed to spark some activity mentioning that VW all over the VW blogosphere…

Personally, I’m sorry to see There.com go. I always liked their attitude and stance in general; I remember how their management teams and developers were quite happy to come to discuss things in Second Life, on roundtables and public meetings. This is not really very common in the tough and competitive market of virtual worlds 🙂 And when the Electric Sheep Company announced that MTV’s Virtual Laguna Beach would be implemented in There.com and not Second Life, mostly because of Linden Lab’s lack of commitment to allow a stronger enforcement against griefers and pirated content, most SL residents actually backed that decision and agreed with it. It’s also ironic that Linden Lab has only recently announced the SL Enterprise product which is addressing what MTV wanted in 2006…

The OLIVE team, however, will most certainly continue this spirit of “cooperative competition”. They’re also part of the IETF group pushing for interoperability. While I’m quite sure things won’t be rosy, at least it’s nice to see a competing technology that is willing at least to talk with their competitors.

So while I failed yet another prediction, I’m still bold enough to stick to my more dramatic one: virtual worlds will come and go, as money runs out and companies fail to attract funders, but Second Life will remain. Even if it’s not Linden Lab’s Second Life but a spin-off encompassing OpenSimulator, realXtend, OLIVE, and several other technologies that, unlike all others, are working hard to interoperate with each other, and whose work, albeit at a very slow pace, is going ahead. It’s a relatively safe bet that after 2011, to survive, a virtual world platform will have to be part of the MMOX group.

In the mean time, Frenzoo, a virtual world with user-generated content which currently in beta, is extending a nice gift to all former There.com users: a free lifetime pass if they’re willing to move over to Frenzoo.