Despite the popularity of SecondLife, there are in fact several such services on the market today. Enabling interoperabilty between There, Entropia Universe, Moove, Habbo Hotel, and Kaneva could go along way towards promoting the Virtual World industry. IBM researcher Ian Hughes’ excellent post poses the question of what that interoperability might look like.
I think the question might still be a bit premature as Virtual Worlds are at the onset of the Adolescent stage in their development. Only once they mature can Virtual World interoperability be a reality and then I can see two possibilities for such interop to occur. Let me explain.
THREE STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT
If you look at most communication systems (telephones, e-mail, and IM to name a few) there's a common evolutionary path they tend to follow unless arrested by some external forces.
1. Juvenile -- We see numerous early adopters and experimenters of the technology occasionally with one dominant player, but rarely only one player. At this stage, players still are trying to gain market share. Cooperation is low
2. Adolescent -- The market contracts and eliminates the weaker players, leaving players of approximate size and influence. None can completely dominate the other. There is growing recognition that they will need to work together in order for the industry to grow for all interested. Cooperation is still low to nominal.
3. Mature -- Competing organizations identify ways of collaborating together. Here vendors share some information to allow for nominal interoperability, but not enough to lose the value of their technologies. Cooperation is high.
So take the PSTN for example. During the Juvenile stage, telephone companies focussed on expanding their customer base. One couldn't place a phone call from one provider to the next. During the Adolescent stage, market stability was reached and service providers began looking at working with one another. In the Mature stage, service providers ended up devising a complex revenue sharing models that benefited everyone involved enabling calls to be placed between service provider networks..
Email was the same. During the Juvenile stage numerous mail providers (MCImail, Compuserve etc.) vied for customers and ignoring one another. Ultimately the market reached the Adolescent stage, where the remaining e-mail providers couldn't grow enough to defeat their opponents. This ushered in the Mature stage where SMTP was created allowing e-mall exchange between networks.
IM is evolving along similar lines. During the Juvenile stage service providers (ICQ, AIM, Yahoo etc. ) competed with one another trying to attract users. Now in the Adolescent stage, a stasis has been reached where neither party can eliminate the other leading many to look at cooperating with one another. Already some service providers interoperate with one another, a sign of the Mature stage, though AOL’s market presence has still not allowed interoperability to fully develop.
VIRTUAL WORLDS ARE ADOLESCENTS
Virtual world services are still vying for consumers as such as are still in their Juvenile stage. Discussion about interoperability suggests the virtual world industry may be approaching Adolescence though whether leading virtual world players are pushing for interoperability is another matter.
Should they reach that stage then it seems to me that service providers need to find an economic justification to interconnect with one another. Two possibilities exist:
Revenue Sharing- In this model, service providers work our a sharing of revenue between the networks similar to what’s done to day with the telecom providers.
Service Protection - If real money is not being spent, however, the some restrictions on capabilities would be needed to protect one’s customer membership. This might mean federating presence, but limiting communications to IM and preventing the transfer of inventory between the worlds.
Here’s why. Presence is necessary so friends can find one another. The standards are already defined for presence sharing. Restricting the client to IM will enable one to interact in the world, but with lower value. This would be similar to IM services exchanging IM, but not voice. Finally, preventing the transfer of inventory, protects one economy from funding a competitor's world