Virtual Trouble

Using Second Life for business? Yeah, its a screwy idea. OK, there are companies that have set up imaginary shops in Second Life and other virtual worlds, including Toyota, Reebok and Adidas. And yes, IBM and Intel have made a big deal about using Second Life for some meetings.

But most IT shops dont need to worry about this yet right?

Oh yes. Boy, do we ever.

Heres why: Your most tech-savvy users know all about Second Life. And theres a good chance theyve thought about holding some business meetings there anything from workgroup get-togethers to sales presentations. Maybe theyre already doing it.

If they are, youre the last people who will hear about it.

Look, remember when your marketing department first started fooling around with the Web? They didnt go to IT they just found an outside Web-hosting provider cheap enough to pay for out of petty cash.

Remember when power users first smuggled in instant messaging? They didnt ask us they just passed the free client software around to everyone else, and it spread.

Today we have corporate-class Web capabilities and secure, loggable instant messaging. That stuff is enterprise-ready. A few years ago, when users brought it in, it wasnt.

And thats where Second Life is right now.

Well, its not ready for most enterprises, anyway. Last fall, IBM honcho Sam Palmisano announced that he has a Second Life avatar, the on-screen character that represents him at staff meetings in the virtual world. And Intel has at least 150 people testing the virtual-meeting waters.

But IBM and Intel are doing those meetings as research projects. Theyre figuring out security and regulatory issues after all, a Second Life meeting is electronic communication. Last month, IBM even issued its first set of guidelines for how employees should behave when theyre representing Big Blue virtually.

Meanwhile, Second Lifes operator, Linden Lab, just announced that it will open-source the Second Life client software. That means third-party service providers can work on the code to make it more enterprise-friendly, then start renting out virtual meeting space to all comers. Very soon, it could be as easy for a user to set up a Second Life meeting as it is to set up an ordinary teleconference today.

But right now, thats not ready.

And your users wont wait. Why should they? From their point of view, if theyre already in Second Life, they just have to decide where their avatars will meet to hold their virtual chat. They can even buy virtual land and build their own virtual meeting places, all at petty-cash prices.

From your point of view, its unsecured, unarchived electronic business communication a regulatory nightmare, even if it doesnt cause technical problems.

Yeah, you should worry and then act. You wont hear about this from users until theyve got a glowing virtual-meetings success story to present to your CEO. So let users hear from you.

What should you say? You could preemptively outlaw Second Life for work, and good luck trying to make that stick.

Or instead you could explain why virtual-world meetings create security and regulatory headaches, and that youd like to work with them to find fixes for those problems before they start dabbling in this stuff. (That message tells your CEO that youre on top of the situation, and it puts users on notice that Second Life meetings arent approved.)

Then start looking for those fixes whether that means videotaping a computer screen during virtual meetings, or hacking the data stream in that open-source Second Life client, or even distracting users until vendors come up with secure, loggable systems.

Just dont assume Second Life is nothing to worry about. That world may be virtual, but the trouble it could cause you is real.

Frank Hayes is Computer­worlds senior news columnist. Contact him at frank_hayes@

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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