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Second Life's Open Source Fairy Tale

Developers have no guarantees when they open source an application. In many cases, they don't know who will use it, nor do they know how things will progress.

The fairy tale version is that developers will flock to the recently open sourced application and begin to work with it, immediately adding value for all involved. For Linden Lab's Second Life, the open source fairy tale is coming true.

Nearly three weeks ago, Linden Lab open sourced its Second Life viewer application. Rob Lanphier, Linden Lab's director of open source development, said the development mailing list has been very active and there is an IRC channel that's hopping 24/7 with people doing development.

"All in all it's been incredibly wildly successful," Lanphier told internetnews.com.

Lanphier said that when he started at Linden Lab four months ago, he tried to set realistic expectations and make people aware that open source doesn't guarantee interest and success.

"What has happened is the fairy tale version of what people hope to have happen when they make proprietary code open source," Lanphier said. "Which is people download; start adding features. It's crazy cool all the things that are happening right now."

Linden Lab didn't provide any sort of version control system access as part of the open source initiative. For Lanphier that has not been an issue though plans are in the works that will change the situation.

"Our first stage is really more about transparency than collaboration," he said. "We wanted to make sure that we had the process of providing source tar balls down since the way that people want to do their tire kicking is with a source tar ball, and they don't want to have to get version control set up."

Lanphier explained that there is an ongoing discussion on the open source developer mailing list about version control systems and, specifically, which one the project should use. The big three open source version control systems are CVS, Subversion (SVN) and Mercurial, though according to Lanphier, developers appear to be leaning toward SVN.

"Part of what we wanted to do was to make a community decision as to what version control system we would use," Lanphier said. "It is still under discussion and it will be resolved reasonably quickly.

"We're taking baby steps in that regards, as we're still just trying to deal with the incredible growth of Second Life as a whole and the last thing we want to do is to radically disrupt the way our developers work just to get the open source community integrated in."

That's not to say the open source developers aren't already making contributions. Lanphier explained that the way contributions currently work is that Linden Lab has an external issue tracker that they're using as a place for people to attach their submissions.

"It gives us a good way of providing a mechanism for people to make contributions and for people to keep track of what has been integrated and to discuss contributions," Lanphier said. "When dealing with people who are not integrated into the process generally speaking what they do is they fix a bug and attach a patch to an issue tracker."

Though there has been a lot of activity, to date there have been no big name new features developed by the open source process. Yet.

So far the open source efforts made on the Second Life open source viewer are a Sun Solaris x64 port, a PowerPC port and packages for Mandriva and Debian with more on the way.

"So far it's all been about making sure that it all works well and about developers getting familiar with the code," Lanphier said. "There are a few proof of concept things going on but no major new functionality yet."

Discussions are underway however for a new structure that could radically change how developers actually work on extending the Second Life viewer.

"There has been a large discussion about figuring out a plug-in architecture so you can extend function without modifying the core viewer," Lanphier explained. "It's work that is really valuable and interesting because it helps us have more distributed development where people don't have to beg us to have their contribution integrated in order to have a feature."

Interest in the open source Second Life viewer may also extend beyond individual members of the open source community to large IT vendors. Sun, IBM and others have been known to take an active presence "in world" for Second Life.

"I know there is interest and discussions," Lanphier said. "Some of it is stuff I can't talk about, and some of it is stuff I'm just not privy to."