I recently came across an excerpt on Slate.com from The Myth of the Garage and Other Minor Surprises, a new book by Dan and Chip Heath that just launched, titled “Why Second Life Failed,” that proposed the way to make better predictions and avoid fads is to use Clay Christensen’s “milkshake test.”
This premise hinges on an imagined fast-food scenario where marketers dig into customer data to learn that milkshakes are being purchased by morning commuters. Why? Because they are “hiring” the milkshake to perform the “job” of supplying them with a cupholder-compatible breakfast option.
Following this train of thought, the iPod succeeded because we all wanted to hire someone to give us access to our own music on-the-go, but the Segway failed because “No one was interested in employing a $5,000 walk-accelerator.”
As many of you who’ve read this blog or known me for long know, I was the one who led Dell into the virtual world of Second Life (SL), so I have a very personal interest in this theory applied to SL.
What the Slate story’s author proposes is that the reason SL didn’t usher in the age of the avatar that Gartner predicted (and then cautioned against a year later) is that it didn’t have a job to do. They feel it was a job candidate “with a fascinating resume…but no actual labor skills.”
And it is here, that I beg to differ. Second Life and virtual worlds do have labor skills – perhaps too many even. If I want to shop with my friend, but she’s in another country, I could hire a virtual world mall to bring us together to look at this season’s fashion trends, try them on and ask her if they make me look good. If I need to have a meeting with coworkers spread around the globe and I don’t want them reading email and ignoring me on the phone, I could hire a virtual world to provide an immersive meeting space that brings everyone’s focus on the topic at hand. If I need to show a customer how to insert a replacement part I sent them, but can’t incur the expense to fly a technician there, I could walk them through it in 3D via a virtual world.
The list really does go on and on, and maybe that’s part of the problem. An iPod is a specialist in music delivery. You may say, but an iPhone does a wide variety of things from games to banking, and it succeeded. But, I say even it is a specialist — in delivering mobile access to applications (the phone portion is really just a fringe benefit, right?).
Virtual worlds are generalists. They can do so many things only limited by their users’ imagination, that they still aren’t simple enough for mass acceptance. Second Life is the wide open frontier and that limits its avid users to the rugged pioneer types.
I don’t think the quandary of why Second Life or OpenSim or other virtual worlds did not become as widely adopted as we thought they would can be solved by simply saying they didn’t build a better milkshake – or as Henry Ford would put it, a faster horse.
No, if I had to come up with just one reason why I think experiments such as the ones we tried at Dell did not take off like I’d hoped, I would have to say it was lack of simplicity. Until the technology can be as intuitive as, say, sliding our fingers across a screen to move objects, then the barriers are just too high for those who prefer creature comforts to frontier creatures.
Image via Creative Commons courtesy of ShardsOfBlue