So, Second Life's new signup rate has dipped a bit -- we may have seen the wave of media-attention-induced curiosity crest. Still, it's been an amazing year in growth for SL, something on the order of 1000%. I do a lot of brooding over the future of SL, and here are the five most likely scenarios, in order of greatest to least probable:
1. SL is just another MMORPG: Growth in SL levels off at about 2 million regular users -- a respectable amount for an online game, but far less than, say, World of Warcraft. It remains the environment of choice for creatives, geeks, and socializers, but the interface is too clunky and the gameplay is too open-ended to appeal to a mass audience.
2. SL is HyperCard: Remember HyperCard, the Mac-based tool set that allowed you to make mini-applications like address books, cute animations, and games? Neither do I. Seriously, I was once a HyperCard fanatic -- I made click-on-that interactives akin to The Playroom or Cosmic Osmo (this was before Myst); I managed my Dungeons and Dragons games with HyperCard stacks. So what happened, HyperCard? You were too tough for the casual user to grok, but not powerful enough for most professional developers, unless you were as smart as Robyn and Rand Miller (creators of Myst).
SL reminds me uncomfortably of HyperCard in terms of its opacity to casual users and its awkwardness for pros. It sits in a cursed zone between ease of use and flexibility. I've seen some hopeful signs lately on the flexibility end of the scale, with the advent of sculpted prims that allow designers to build stuff outside of SL and then import it, but it remains to be seen whether it will remain a vital medium for design as the months go on.
3. SL is AOL: I still remember my America Online email address, and the AOL logo is burned into my memory because of the hours I spent staring at it waiting for my modem to get a connection. Hard to fathom now, but there was a time when email, message boards, and chat rooms were synonymous with AOL for millions of users. AOL couldn't add service fast enough to keep up with its own growth; people began to feel limited by the proprietary nature of the service; and competitors sprang up to offer the same thing, more cheaply. Today, AOL is still a player, but has lost its position at the center.
SL is also experiencing rapid growth, and its resources are strained to keep up. The time is ripe for competition. Expect to see other virtual world service providers to spring up in the next year or so, using SL's open source client software. They'll let you own a private island more cheaply, with the downside being that it won't be connected to the main SL grid, so it will perhaps be too private.
4. SL is the new WWW: I do believe there's an outside chance that SL could become another place where lots of people go to buy stuff online and do business. The WWW won't go away by any means, but SL may add a new metaphor for interacting with data and with other people online.
5. SL is the Matrix: This future is wayyyyy out there, but in this scenario, incremental improvements in interface, graphics and sound, and the addition of AIs make SL a place where millions of people spend most of their time, becoming their "first life". The Singularity arrives, merging us with our technology, and we migrate to a virtual paradise of our own making.