Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Birth and Adolescence of Web.Alive and the 3D Web

For some time Nortel had been pondering what the 'connectedness' of the Internet, broadband access, camera phones, voice-over-IP, instant messaging, social networking, video uploading, etc., all meant for businesses and organizations, and how this connectedness could be turned into a competitive advantage.

To answer this question Nortel commissioned IDC, the global market intelligence firm, to conduct a global study of almost 2,400 working adults in 17 countries. The study focused on quantifying the state of today's connectedness, tracking its acceptance and use across devices and applications as well as determining the pace of its growth and impact on the enterprise. The report was released in May 2008, under the title: "The Hyperconnected: Here They Come", in which they stated that 16 percent of business users were already hyperconnected, and predicted that that number would increase to 40% over the next 5 years.

The following month, in June 2008, Nortel released a demo of its virtual world in a browser, web.alive, that it had been working on for years, under the codename, Project Chainsaw. This was a step-change from the hardware-focused telecommunications giant, into the realms of software and services.

Things then began to move quite rapidly. In August 2008 Nortel acquired Diamondware in order to provide integrated 3D voice to its platform, and in January 2009 they licensed the Unreal Engine 2.5 to replace the existing engine. They hoped that talented creators of content for Epic's Unreal Engine-based games, would bring their skills to web.alive.

At the same time, Lenovo, the laptop maker, announced that they would be launching an e-commerce application, an eLounge named the Lenovo Virtual Showroom,  using web.alive. This was an expansion of Nortel's original marketing view of web.alive, which was focused on enterprise level collaboration and training applications. A very nice tour of the Lenovo eLounge then appeared on Dennis Shiao's It's All Virtual, blogsite.

Not all was well though in Nortel, the parent company. Despite the strength of their web.alive team, Nortel filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2009. Nortel then went into finacial meltdown and over the course of 2009 went into massive sell everything but the kitchen sink mode. However, keen interest had been displayed in the Enterprise Solutions unit, which included web.alive, by various suitors, so an auction was organised. The eventual winner was Avaya, and by the end of 2009 the sale of Nortel Enterprise Solutions to Avaya had been completed, and with it web.alive and the entire web.alive team. The reported price being $915 million.

During the meltdown, Nortel continued to develop web.alive, which was still in beta. It was a great platform, it was web-based, so no huge downloads were required, and it would be available to anyone who had a browser, regardless of the Operating System. In November 2009 web.alive beta 2 was released, which had an impressive array of features, including the ability to drag and drop documents into web.alive to make presentations.

Now that the future of web.alive has been secured, what about the future of the product itself?

Since the acquisition of its first customer, Lenovo, web.alive has acquired a few more, and the following have been identified (with the help of user wa 723, in the web.alive community forum):

My first impressions were not so good. By the time it took to load the browser plug-in, and for the avatar to be ready to start moving around, I had started to lose interest. I could have explored the first three or four products in a regular 2D store by the time the 3D store was ready to explore. I then found that wandering around a virtual store was nowhere near as focused as a 2D store. In a 2D store I could do a search for all laptops under $500, get a list and start to examine their looks and specs, something I could not do in the 3D store.

Clicking links in a 2D store is also a whole lot quicker than walking around a store (virtual or real). Of couse, it is also claimed that one of the benefits of a 3D virtual store over the regular 2D website, is that you can interact with salesfolk and other customers, and get great feedback. However, in every store I visited (and I visited over 80 in total, not just the web.alive-based stores) I never saw another soul. It was as much a ghost-town experience as I usually encounter in my visits to Second Life or the OS Grid. Could it be that sales staff only keep US office hours?

I also found, unlike 2D websites, I could not have more than one instance of web.alive open at the same time, for comparisons. When I tried, I got this:

Only one instance is permitted
Judging by the activity on the web.alive forum, where there are just 20 posts across all the topics to date (and the earliest post I found was dated  December 16th, 2008) it does appear that web.alive is not generating the kind of interest its designers had hoped for.

If the 3D Web is ever going to supplant the 2D Web, it needs to address some key issues:
  • 3D web pages need to load as quickly as 2D web pages
  • 3D web pages must be capable of being multi-instanced
  • The ability to search across products in a 3D store must be at least as easy as in a 2D store
  • The ability to teleport instantly to any product in the search results is a must
  • Companies must think about manning their virtual stores 24/7 to cater for all all time zones
I am still not convinced by the 3D web, and my lonely journey across it seems to confirm that I am not the only sceptic out there.