Second Life is a brilliant sandbox, and there are some real opportunities that Linden could have taken to make it something beyond a fairly limited community. They may be too late now, but they have little to lose in trying:
SL has always been a lousy game environment, but that’s largely because Linden refuse to focus on the opportunity and optimize a set of servers for it (enabling some level of pre-caching). If they did do so, it could be an intriguing platform for free-to-play games. And, not only would it work for conventionally developed games. It could include an integrated marketplace for user-generated content that would leverage the most accessible tools for 3D creation, and a significant existing developer base. Questions of game balance and style always come up when discussing expansive approaches to in-game content, but this can be resolved either with structurally or societally enforced rules within each game environment. [I co-founded Gameflood to do something like this, but left it as it became something modder-centric, as a result of just this debate.]
In SL retail, Linden has enabled an economy and set loose small businesspeople/designers to optimize merchandizing and social environments without constraints, even of gravity. The result has been a number of innovative approaches taken with business model and social leverage. Even the failures of real world entities like American Apparel there have been interesting and useful in helping to define what is meaningful in virtual space. Game developers already understand how to engage a fine-tuned relationship with interactive users, and online retailers will eventually need to achieve something similar; what SL does well constitutes a piece of this, although retail in general will need finer tools than SL provides. A lot of what SL does do will eventually bubble up through other channels (Playstation Home, etc.), but a truly robust path through Linden’s technologies is probably better for Linden. Ever since the days when some of the major Web 1.0 blowouts were enriched retail concepts, retail has been extremely gun-shy about anything more than plain vanilla websites, and for a long time, simple was the best solution. But web apps are changing the nature of browser experience, and we clearly see that environments like Club Penguin and Maplestory are better sales tools than Big Fish. This isn’t to say that online retail needs to be 3D, but it does need to be significantly smarter and more flexible than it is today.
For retail or for games, there are significant benefits to an environment where content is extensible and human interaction is flexible and creative. SL also includes a nifty and robust transaction engine to effectively monetize such efforts. But, instead of going in the direction of these strengths, Linden seem to want to focus on the enterprise. Now, aside from the fact that anybody involved in a communications/social networking technology eventually comes around to wondering if it would be marketable to a business audience that actually has a budget for this sort of thing, there’s no real reason that a glitzy kludge like SL should exist in a business environment. The effort required to express oneself beyond text, with gestures, etc., is disproportionate to the benefit received for business communication, and this is amplified by the fact that variations between participant users’ skills within the SL environment would be overly significant in the overall dynamic of dialogs. Better to use WebEx, or simple videoconferencing, where expression and gesture are fully employed.