The New York Times magazine's annual must-read "Year in Ideas" issue published yesterday includes an entry which quickly distilled to its essence what I've been trying to express in my "How to Make Second Life Mass Market" series of posts. Put much more succinctly:
This adage summarizes a recent Wired magazine article by Robert Capps, "The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine", which I recommend highly. In it, Capps identifies a pervasive market trend that encompasses everything from consumer technology to military hardware: when given the option, the market overwhelmingly favors the lower quality option that's cheap and available, over the product that's expensive but much higher quality and feature-robust. It's why consumers generally prefer the Flip camera over high definition video cameras, Google Docs over Microsoft Office, and so on. (I'm sure you can quickly think of other examples; I'm hard pressed to come up with even one where the rule clearly doesn't apply.)
The same phenomenon is observable with virtual worlds:
by far the most popular are web-based with relatively rudimentary graphics, a point-and-click interface, and freemium. As crufty and "dumbed down" as these options may seem to some, they apparently provide an avatar-driven virtual world experience that's "good enough" for everyone else. Second Life as it currently exists runs counter to each of these principles. (Yes, while creating an SL account is free, using the software at all often requires a costly hardware upgrade, and more key, a significant up-front investment of time to learn.) This challenge, I should say, isn't confined just to Second Life -- while social games and web-based virtual worlds grow rapidly, even World of Warcraft finally seems to have hit a growth plateau. Now the Lindens are already attacking this problem on a number of fronts -- indeed, one of Mark Kingdon's first decisions as a CEO was to simplify the account registration process -- but much remains to be done. Ironically, if mass market adoption is the aim, their task is not to make Second Life great, but just good enough.