There's a lot of to-do about how the current crop of virtual worlds could lead to the next killer app of the internet age (after email and the web), but I think there's one critical feature that these virtual worlds presently lack: interconnectivity.
[Linden Labs'] backers include some of the world's smartest, richest, and most successful tech entrepreneurs. The chairman and first big outside investor is Mitch Kapor, creator of Lotus 1-2-3, the spreadsheet application that helped begin the PC software revolution. Other investors include eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Amazon (Charts) CEO Jeff Bezos, and Microsoft chief technology architect (and inventor of Lotus Notes) Ray Ozzie - each credited with a seminal networked product of our age.
They think Second Life may be next, and some respected tech pundits agree. Says Mark Anderson, author of the Strategic News Service newsletter: "In two years I think Second Life will be huge, probably as large as the entire gaming community is today."
The problem with Second Life, World of Warcraft, and the upcoming Sony virtual world called "Home" is that unlike the web and email, none of these worlds can connect to any other. Each world is self-contained and proprietary, developed for the profit of the owning company. In contrast, web pages can be loaded in innumerable browsers, and pages can be created that link to pages owned by anyone, anywhere in the world. Similarly, users of Microsoft Outlook can send emails to Gmail users, not just other users of Outlook. That interconnectivity is the reason that email and the web are so powerful and compelling.
Until someone designs the virtual world equivalents to HTML and Firefox that allow users to seamlessly jump from one independent virtual world to another, there is no way this technology will be good for anything more than making toys. By analogy, the current crop of virtual worlds are to the future what GEnie and CompuServe were to the modern web.