The king of alter egos is surprisingly humble guy
Creator of Second Life's goal? Just to reach people
By Kevin Maney
SAN FRANCISCO — Philip Rosedale didn't create Second Life to be a game or a toy. He thinks he is remaking the Internet — taking it on a giant leap forward, much like the invention of the Mosaic browser or World Wide Web.
"What would feel like success?" Rosedale says, pausing to think about it. He is in the funky, ragged cafeteria of the company he founded, Linden Lab, which built and runs the groundbreaking, buzz-generating online virtual world called Second Life. Half-eaten Costco-size bags of chips and bowls of fruit lie on bare tables. Rosedale is wearing jeans and an orange sweater, hair gelled and spiked. With his classic good looks and wide-eyed enthusiasm, Rosedale seems like a cross between Brad Pitt and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
"Not money," he finally says. "But I will look back and say, did we do as much as we could to reach as many people as possible? Can we reach a billion people? That would be cool!"
Rosedale is emerging as the tech celebrity du jour as Second Life climbs into mass-market acceptance. Ten thousand people a day are signing up. CBS chief Leslie Moonves hosted Rosedale on stage at January's Consumer Electronics Show. Reuters set up a virtual Second Life news bureau. It is becoming so vital that politicians are campaigning there, bands such as Duran Duran are giving concerts, and hotel chains are using it to try out new concepts.
Most recently, the site has been in the news for giving the public access to parts of its source code — a way
to supercharge its development and reach. It's also been the subject of some controversy over how many people actually use it. Second Life claims over 2 million registered users, but probably only 10% regularly participate.
On the surface, Second Life is an online place somewhat similar to a Sims computer game, with buildings and roads and a population of avatars — cartoonish representations of users. Anyone can join, and users
chat with each other, build houses, start businesses, go to concerts and otherwise hang out together. The site is winning the attention of Internet heavy hitters such as Sun Microsystems chief scientist John Gage and IBM head of tech strategy Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who believe Second Life — or something like it —
will evolve into a way to use the Net that is more like the way humans use the real world. In that way, it could mark a next great leap in the Net's accessibility.
"People like to interact with other people," says Wladawsky-Berger, who persuaded IBM to embrace Second Life (and who will retire from IBM in May). "People like to interact with their environment in more visceral ways. It's the way our brains work."
Rosedale is Second Life's god, or maybe its Thomas Jefferson: the visionary who set up a system and its ideals, then put it all into motion.
But getting it to this takeoff point hasn't been easy. Rosedale has hammered at this since 1999. For most of that time Second Life was dismissed as a playground for the ultra-nerdy. The company is backed by some of the biggest names in tech— including Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and eBay
founder Pierre Omidyar — but nearly ran out of money a couple of times.
"At one point it was unclear Philip would succeed, and it required faith to keep going," says Kapor, the first investor in Linden Lab and now its chairman.
Yet even Kapor acknowledges that it is still early to tell if the faith will pay off.
Rosedale was born in San Diego in 1968, the first of four kids. "Mom was an English teacher until she started having babies," he says. "She gave me a lifelong love of reading great and hard books and was my biggest supporter in my various wacky childhood projects. Dad was a navy carrier pilot — he flew S-3's — and then
retired and became an architect."
Rosedale was a left-handed, creative kid who wanted to know how things worked. He'd take on electronics projects, like building a music synthesizer. In middle school, his parents bought him an Apple IIe, and he was euphoric.
"I made trees growing on screen," Rosedale says. "That's when I realized you could simulate nature."
He started a database business in high school, went to the University of California, San Diego, for physics, then moved to San Francisco and started a tiny company called FreeVue, which made early video conferencing software for the Web. RealNetworks bought FreeVue in 1996, and Rosedale joined Real, eventually becoming its chief technology officer.
Around the same time, Neal Stephenson's science-fiction classic Snow Crash swept through the tech community. The novel takes place across two worlds: the real world, and the global, highly realistic online space called the Metaverse. Rosedale's wife bought him the book, and he was inspired.
"I concluded the Metaverse was going to happen but not yet, not at the time," he says. The Internet wasn't robust enough, connections were still mostly dial-up, and PCs didn't have sophisticated 3D graphics. "I told friends I would work on something else and wait."
The wait ended with two events in 1999. Nvidia released a significant advance in computer graphics with its GeForce2 card. And Rosedale attended Burning Man, a free-spirited, anything-goes desert festival. He came away thinking Burning Man was the template for an online world — a place where people could be whatever
they wanted to be.
Rosedale left RealNetworks, moved back to San Francisco and joined venture-capital firm Accel Partners as an entrepreneur-in-residence, a springboard from which to start a company. That's where Kapor came in.
Kapor, a legend of the 1980s PC industry, first met Rosedale through RealNetworks, where Kapor had been a board member. Kapor had joined Accel as a partner and was there when Rosedale came aboard. Kapor says he thought Rosedale was bright and his virtual world ideas interesting.
"It was outside the bounds of what Accel wanted to invest in, which freed me to say, if you start this and are looking for some angel money and advice, I'd love to do something with you," Kapor says.
With money from selling FreeVue and some from Kapor, Rosedale started Linden Lab, named for the street where the company first had its offices.
From the beginning, there have been two core conceits to Second Life. The first is the way most people perceive the service: Second Life as an alternate existence, built by its residents, that strives to be better than the physical world.
"If we create the world from the bottom up, it can be re-imagined," Rosedale says. He always believed the place had to evolve organically and be self-governed. People could look like themselves, or look like a pterodactyl, or whatever they wanted. Second Life has its own economy based on Linden dollars, so users can buy and sell digital items or services.
"Philip had the idea that Second Life should be like reality, but kinder and gentler," Kapor says. But the second, subtler, idea behind Second Life may turn out to be more powerful.
Other than chat rooms, much of the Internet is devoid of people. If you're shopping on Amazon.com, you have no idea if you're alone or if 20,000 other people are there at the same time. There's no way to notice if you and another shopper are looking at the same product, and start up a conversation about it.
"If someone in the real world needs a job, they walk up to people and ask for one," Rosedale says. "You can't do that on the Web. The Web doesn't talk to you."
IBM's Wladawsky-Berger suggests that the magic of the original Internet and Web has distracted users from an important question: "We never said: 'Where are the people?' " he says.
Now, Wladawsky-Berger and other powerful Internet players are starting to see Second Life as a better, people-centric way to navigate the Net. It might be a leap like when the Mosaic browser first brought graphics to the Internet. Eventually, Internet users might go to Amazon through Second Life instead of through a browser, walking into the Amazon store and interacting with shoppers and clerks.
"It's become clear that something like Second Life is going to become huge," Kapor says. "Linden has the opportunity to be the company that does that, but it's not a lock."
Rosedale has to avoid becoming the next CompuServe or Netscape: companies that broke new ground, but lost to followers such as AOL and Microsoft.
Second Life has had a hard-core user base for years, but the mainstream has eluded it. "I never thought it wouldn't work," Rosedale says. "But there were times I thought we'd go out of business."
Like in 2002. Just as broadband Internet and faster desktop computers were beginning to make Second Life usable for more people, consumers shifted en masse to laptops, which at the time had less-powerful graphics capabilities. "Laptops couldn't run Second Life, and we had to wait," Rosedale says. That wait severely tested Linden Lab's financial reserves.
But in 2006, all the right factors seemed to come together. Consumer technology was good enough to make Second Life robust for the masses. Publicity about the site started making people take notice.
Former Virginia governor Mark Warner, when he thought he might be running for president, made Second Life's first political whistle-stop as an avatar of himself. Artists such as Duran Duran and Suzanne Vega performed live concerts — playing into microphones live so the music transmits through their avatars. Law schools started having seminars about how the legal code applied in a virtual world. (Can you sue someone who punches your avatar in the nose?)
Businesses started experimenting. Sun has been holding press conferences in Second Life. Starwood Hotels set up a virtual version of a concept hotel called Aloft, asking Second Life residents to tour the hotel and give feedback. Harvard's law school built a virtual campus.
IBM is using Second Life as a way to hold meetings — avatars around a conference table — with people in
different parts of the world. Wladawsky-Berger thinks it's better than videoconferencing. IBM's stamp of approval has been seen as a move akin to when IBM embraced Linux, which helped make the upstart open-source operating system legitimate for business users.
As a next step, Rosedale has opened up more of the source code behind Second Life, allowing users to modify and plug other sites and software into the site, potentially accelerating Second Life's development. The company knows it has to make Second Life easier to use. Its learning curve is its Achilles' heel.
Rosedale has competitors — most notably There.com — but none has developed the cachet of Second Life.
At the moment, in the realm of virtual worlds, all eyes are on Rosedale. Which leaves him with one huge question: Can Rosedale take this early lead and run with it?
"We only have 28 engineers, 140 people — we're microscopic," he says. "At this point, everybody is looking at this and saying, 'This opportunity is huge, and it's this little private company.' "
He knows the big players will come after him. What happens after that will determine whether Rosedale winds up becoming a tech trivia question, or the builder of the Metaverse.