26 March 2010

Vivox in SL: timeline, business and reception


This article follows the one about Vivox integration.

As an introduction, a timeline and some figures:

  • 2006: the Vivox-SL collaboration started (Joe Miller said in March 2007 that The program has been in development for over a year).
  • 2007: voice chat is integrated into the SL Viewer in August.
  • 2008: SLim is launched in September. It is a lightweight client that enables SL residents to interact with their Second Life friends without having to go inworld with the Second Life Viewer and the ability to leave voice mails for offline friends.
  • 2009: AvaLine (beta) is launched in May. To encourage all residents to use Avaline when the beta ended in August, LL offered free communications to AvaLine subscribers the first month and free voice-mail for the rest of 2009. And a Hula Bear.

According to Linden Lab's blog and press release, Over 15 Billion Minutes of Voice Have Been Delivered in Second Life. In the entire year 2009, the number of voice minutes used by SL residents has remained around 3 billion per quarter and more than 60% of Second Life Residents are using voice at any given time. Vivox reported in July 2008 a daily average of 600,000 minutes of peer-to-peer calls, Over 1 billion minutes of voice communications per month, Group events as large as 400 Residents. As a comparison, Skype had 6 billion minutes per month at that time (according to Gigaom). The numbers extracted from the May 2009 press release (700,000 unique users consuming more than a billion minutes a month) mean the average resident using voice-chat spends 17h per month speaking or listening (and not 357).

Out-of-game messaging and calls

AvaLine is the name of the current virtual telephony system powered by Vivox. A timeline in the May 2009 press release indicates that sending SMS from inside SL to out-of-game mobile phones should become possible in 2010. AvaLine's extension will let residents call or send SMS to real-world phones. Since March 2007 (before the launch of the voice-chat in SL), SL residents were told they would have to pay to use out-of-game telephony features: Eventually, Linden plans to charge Linden Dollars for the service to be activated on privately owned land. People who own land can pay to have VoIP activated for all users on their property. For a single user, AvaLine costs L$14,400/year, ie US$70/year. Residents pay only for monthly flat-rate AvaLine service, regardless of how many calls are received or minutes are used. And

Before AvaLine was launched, other organizations had started to think and actually implemented out-of-game calls and SMS. For instance, in September 2007, NEC opened an island in SL. They offered the possibility for residents to make calls to another person in the real world and send text oriented messages such as SMS, email and IP Messaging [...] to the real world. Other organizations such as Swisscom (through Starfruit) sponsored 100,000 SMS that residents could send from virtual phone booth to out-of-game phones. Another system called SLFONE enables residents to send 120SMS to 240 countries and 700 networks for 8500L$/year (ie US$40).

Reception and adoption by the residents

Three major announcements were made by LL to their residents about voice integration in SL. The earliest news was a FAQ justifying the introduction of voice to SL. It was published by Joe Linden and received half a thousand comments. The second news was published in May 2009. It introduced the AvaLine beta and showed a lot of unsatisfied users as well. Third, the end of AvaLine beta in August 2009 and its introduction to all residents as one of the new bells and whistles brought a lot of concern as well. The residents' comments showed they cared more about stability than new features. Many of them wondered why they would pay to use a semi-working functionnality while they are currently doing fine with other voice-chat systems.

  • When voice was first introduced the same arguments were made - LL said we all loved it, most people said they never/couldn't use it and some people said it was vital for them.
  • This new shiny toy is just something to try to distract people from the real issues.
  • We want stability before the introduction of new features.
  • Utterly pointless and I bet you were told so in all those ridiculous surveys. And your call quality is awful, skype ftw.
  • each shiny new toy gets lots of marketing attention, but fixing things that are broken in a product you've already sold isn't as sexy.

Unfortunately, one of the last word given by LL was: join me for Office Hours [...] we will discuss your ideas about what kinds of communications tools would best help you enhance your Second Life experience. A very interesting official Linden reaction to residents' complains was Partnerships, like the one with Vivox that helped bring us AvaLine, also greatly reduce the number of internal staff needed to deliver projects.
LL may have to keep bringing new content to its customers to keep some of them attracted. That is a perfectly normal marketing strategy in any MMOG. However LL is not an MMOG, and the average SL residents may differ quite much from the average MMO gamer. The obvious difference is: some of the residents work or earn money thanks to SL. So I think it might be more efficient to base a communication strategy on debugging or maintenance rather than on new features.

Finally, I am puzzled by the strange (or lack of?) community management style followed by LL. Joe Linden published "Over 15 Billion Voice Minutes Served", but he was not in charge of answering the comments although he wrote I look forward to hearing what you think. Instead, it was Jeska Linden (an actual community manager with 20 times more news posted than Joe) who stepped up to the plate. Is "what is rare is important" the point in Joe announcing new features to the community?

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