There was some buzz in the OpenSim arena recently because SpotOn3D released a browser plugin client for their customized OpenSim-based virtual world.
Why is this significant? Truthfully, the reason it’s significant is because people have very messed-up perceptions about computer software. For years, I’ve heard people say that Second Life and other virtual worlds would be easier to use if you could “just run it inside a browser” rather than having to download a whole separate client program. The problem with this is that browsers don’t support the entire client rendering engine and protocol layer that Second Life or OpenSim needs. That means that you do in fact have to download a plugin, and the plugin that you download has to do basically everything that the software package you would have downloaded will do. In other words, you’re just doing exactly the same thing, downloading a fairly substantial piece of software. The only difference is perception; people seem to perceive, somehow, that if it’s inside their browser, it’s easier to use than if it’s a separate program. (And, from my point of view, just like everything else that’s run “inside a browser”, it will tend not to be as smooth or as good as when you have a dedicated program for it. That’s changing, as browsers are converging towards operating systems, but they’re not there yet.)
Ah well. The truth is, though, that browsers have plugin managers that make it marginally easier to download and run plugins than it is to download a separate software package… and for many users, that margin of difference matters. (For people like me, it’s a negative; browser plugin installation, because it’s designed to be easy, is opaque. I like to know where software being installed on my system is going!) What’s more, plugin download lets you do an end-run around institutional IT molasses, where you can’t get software regularly installed and updated on systems you need. This matters in particular for education, where IT is used to installing things before a semester or a school year… but virtual worlds, being alpha in nature, have necessary updates on a much shorter timescale. Plugins, however, often get installed in your own user account (which from my point of view is horribly inefficient), and so you can install them without having to wait for IT to approve and do it. So, perhaps browser plugins are important.
The real problem with SpotOn3D, though, isn’t that they’ve created a browser plugin. Indeed, although I think it’s more smoke and mirrors than real innovation, they would deserve some approval for doing this. No, what we should boycott them for is patenting the idea of a browser plugin. (Edit: the patent isn’t approved, however; they’ve just applied for it. It’s possible the patent will get turned down, although the USPTO has granted a lot of patents that should have been turned down. Nonetheless, SpotOn3D has already done the foul deed by applying for the patent.)
Software patents are bullshit. Indeed, increasingly, patents in general are. If you read the US constitution, nominally they are there to foster progress in the useful sciences and arts. In practice, today, however, they hamper innovation. One person or company pisses all over a general area of doing something with software, and now nobody else can do anything with it for two decades unless they pay protection money. Supposedly, this is to protect people from having their inventions stolen. But, again, in practice, the vast majority of software patents aren’t a surprising new innovation; they’re things that many programmers can (and have) come up with, things that developers have already come up with, or an obvious extension. Patents are supposed to be a way of making surprising new innovations public so that everybody can benefit from them; they are there to provide an incentive to make things public. However, they way they’re working in today’s economy, especially with regard to software and “business methods”, is that they turn first-to-market (or “first to claim to want to get to market”) with a straightforward idea into a government-protected monopoly that lasts two decades. And, indeed, there exist parasite companies out there that do nothing but acquire patents and sue other companies and people for violating those patents. In other words, they exist only to stop people from doing things. That’s completely absurd.
And, even if the patent is bullshit and would eventually be overturned if somebody fought it, just going to court to fight it is expensive, often prohbitively so. The result is that a lot of people settle for patents they shouldn’t have. It’s bullies on the school yard. If you actually went to the teacher and told them the bullies were trying to take your lunch money, you wouldn’t lose your lunch money. But on many school yards, the cost of doing that is frightening enough that you just give in to the bullies. This is not fostering innovation.
A company that gets patents in good faith— for instance, only to use defensively against other patent assaults (which doesn’t work against trolls, by the way)— is marginally better. But only marginally. Unless that company is huge enough that we can count on it not going away, like PanAm or Borders, there’s always the possibility that a few years (or even a decade) down the line they (or their assets) will be bought by another company who has no qualms against using “defensive” patents to get undeserved income from other people who are actually doing anything.
Open Source is particularly vulnerable to patents. The nature of open source is that you distribute what you’ve done and let other people use it. However, if your code is patent encumbered, it may not matter that you’ve open sourced it; anybody else who wants to use it may face the threat of attacks from patent trolls. So, it’s particularly galling that SpotOn3D, which is built on top of open source— the OpenSim server code and the Second Life client code— would enter the software patent arena.
So, amidst all this excitement about SpotOn3D providing a browser plugin, we need to remember that they are acting in extremely bad faith, and that they are participating in a legal activity that can only harm virtual worlds, and is especially a threat to the open source virtual world effort. For this reason, I strongly urge any virtual world enthusiast to boycott SpotOn3D. Do not reward companies that behave in such bad faith.