Though he is Linden Lab’s new CEO now, one of Ebbe Altberg’s first experiences with Second Life occurred over 10 years ago, and as it happens, actually involved a violation of Second Life policy. It was around that time, you see, that Altberg’s son fell in love with Second Life, and became an avid builder there. Which is usually a fine thing, but here’s the problem: Altberg’s son was a young teen at the time, and back then they were strictly not allowed:
“So yeah, he was underage,” Altberg admits now, “so SL booted him correctly.”
Altberg convinced then CEO Philip Rosedale to be lenient, but by that time, Altberg’s young son had become a well-known content creator in Second Life, and had revealed his age to his adult collaborators in SL (who were very surprised to learn how young he was). So Altberg’s son was booted from the main grid of Second Life, and when Teen Second Life opened around 2005, found himself exiled there. Frustrated by how comparably poor the quality of content was there, Ebbe’s boy began working with someone in the main grid to export content from Second Life proper to Second Life’s teenage wasteland. (As one of the early teen users described it to me, back in the day.)
Despite all that, Ebbe's son stayed engaged in Second Life for a couple years, and even co-founded an in-world design company. And being among the first explorers of Teen Second Life, one of that world’s original islands was even named after the avatar of Ebbe Altberg’s son. And Ebbe Altberg watched all this amazed: “For a kid to have this experience so early was fantastic,” as he puts it now.
Linden Lab’s new CEO tells me all this when I ask him how long he’s been involved with Linden Lab. “I feel like I’ve been part of Second Life and Linden Lab for many years,” says Altberg. For not only does he know Philip Rosedale and one of Second Life’s very first investors, there’s the experiences with his son, and his watching all the successive CEOs (starting with Rosedale) come and go over the years.
But strictly speaking, Ebbe Altberg has been on the job of Linden Lab CEO since February 10. So that in mind, I spoke with him in the broadest terms about his task ahead, for the company in general and Second Life in particular, and why he’s the right person to take the lead on both.
He addressed all that in the form of seven questions:
How Ebbe Altberg Has Been Close to Linden Lab From the Start
“You can argue I have known about Second life from the beginning,” Altberg says. In addition to the experiences with his son in Second Life, Altberg is extremely close to Jed Smith of Catamount Ventures, who he has known since college. Jed was one of Linden Lab’s very first investors, and has helped keep Altberg apprised of the company over the decade. (When the CEO slot came available, Altberg and Smith met to decide if he could take that role without it jeopardizing their friendship.)
Why Ebbe Altberg Took the Job in the First Place
“I’ve been fascinated with [Second Life] from the beginning,” says Altberg. “I know the hype got ahead of itself, because it takes awhile to get the quality of the scale and experience [right], so it was quite sad when the backlash and the negativity came about, because it just doesn’t deserve it.” However, he says, “I don’t mind those challenges, and I think we can fix this. I think there’s things we can do that can make [Second Life] broadly appealing, and then come back to the world and talk about us... But maybe the market is more prepared now than it was [during the hype wave].”
Why Having Little Professional Background in 3D or Gaming Isn’t a Negative
“Far as I can tell,” I ask Altberg, “you have no experience in gaming, 3D graphics or VR -- is this a drawback to leading Linden Lab?”
Altberg points out that he studied fine arts and computer graphics in college, and had some focus on 3D graphic studios while at Microsoft, and has experience on another graphics-heavy product. Also, he adds: “In the last couple years, [I] moved into a multimedia organization that ran a Java/animation engine which was shaped into a different product, but pulled it because it wasn’t ready for a market.” Speaking of 3D graphics and related technologies, “I’ve been interested or involved in things like that for quite some time… I’m not a gamer person, but SL is not a game. But I certainly understand game dynamics and 3D graphics.” He also points to his experience successfully scaling a VoiP product and other products that are not part of his core expertise.
Why Linden Lab’s Press Release on His Hiring Put as Much Emphasis on Blocksworld as Second Life -- and What That Means for Other Linden Products
“I think [Blocksworld is] very much aligned to what SL is about, which is user-generated content, but [for a] a different form factor and younger demographic… I felt confident that it’s something I’d want to invest in, because the two are very similar to what they want to do. And it’s doing really well.” He thinks Blocksworld just needs more dynamics to scale quickly.
As for the other Linden Lab products released during Rod Humble’s tenure: “We’ll do some clean-up, there’s some things that are not as aligned. There’s already very little resources spent on them.” (From that, I’d infer some recent Linden products will be quietly killed off or sold.) [UPDATE, 1:40pm: In fact, Linden Lab just announced it's "decided to cease development and support for dio, Versu, and Creatorverse."]
Ebbe Altberg’s Personal Experience Using Second Life
“Recently, it’s probably 1.5 hours max… when I came here, all last week I spent all my time meeting with people and teams [at Linden Lab]… clearly I have gone in there and figured how to walk again and fly and have that first user reaction experience. Enough that I can talk intelligently [about it].” Ebbe Altberg acknowledges “I will not get to that level” of expertise with Second Life as, well, someone like Ebbe Altberg’s son.
However, to understand the needs of the user base, he won’t just use SL as an official Linden avatar: “I’ll cruise around as an alt as well to get a feel for the culture and the dynamics.” (I'm emphasizing this point because I've already said how strong I feel about it.)
How Ebbe Altberg Plans to Save Second Life’s Revenue Base
“It’s open knowledge Second Life’s revenue base is eroding,” I tell Altberg. “How do you plan to solidify it?”
“That’s one question I don’t have a clear, concrete answer to,” he tells me, pointing out that Second Life is already 11 years old, and has had “a fantastic run”. That said, “there are issues with our codebase and technology that’s going to take investment and time…. I don’t think there’s simple things we can do to have it hockey stick to the right again, but the idea [of Second Life] should be much much bigger than it became.” He suggests the solution will include different technologies and platforms, such as the Leap Motion controller and the Oculus Rift. “There’s a lot of obvious and not obvious things to give it a much much broader appeal… without taking away too much from the depth that’s been created, the unbelievable engagement that’s almost unheard of, to have that level of engagement you have from the core audience.”
What Ebbe Altberg Can Do for Second Life Where Other CEOs Have Not
“You’re the fourth CEO of Linden Lab,” I say to Ebbe Altberg. “The three before you were unable to grow Second Life’s user base. Can you? If so, how?”
“I don’t even know what they’ve tried yet,” he answers. So early on the process, he’s still taking meetings on fixing the first-time user experience, to “get me up to speed on what’s been tried that failed for valid reasons, or execution reasons.
“Part of the complexity [of Second Life] is it’s a lot of things to a lot of different people… to be that generic and that open ended” in the first-time user experience is a challenge.
“Getting people to understand the value proposition and quickly get feedback on that so they can get hooked in minutes instead of hours and day,” he says, is the challenge he faces now.
“I don’t have the answers yet,” Ebbe Altberg acknowledges, but adds: “I’m convinced it’s a product that can offer a lot of people a lot of value.”
Photo of Ebbe by Peter Gray.
SL image via Kirby Crow.
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