Monday, December 17, 2012

Ashes to Ashes

The prospect of the "death" of Phoenix Viewer has been vexing its ardent users for anywhere from the past week or so to two years (depending on when they first heard something about it). Our team first warned of Linden Lab's intentions to make the grid increasingly incompatible with traditional V1s in the fall of 2010 and then ramped up the volume a year later. Although LL's plans have taken much longer to develop than we expected, the end of Phoenix's viability on the grid is now concrete and fast approaching. 

Some Phoenix users see the Phoenix Firestorm team's decision not to keep the viewer up to date with the grid's impending changes as a betrayal of their loyalty or a murder of the client; they can't imagine using another viewer. I will attempt in this post, as straightforwardly as possible, to explain why it is actually neither one.

Viewer software for Second Life is open source, meaning that anyone who wants to and knows what they're doing can obtain the source code and try to improve on it, customize it, make it something closer to what they want it to be. As long as you stay within both legal parameters (a lot of the code and the supplementary software is subject to licensing terms) and Linden Lab's policies, the options are as broad as your imagination and coding abilities.

Sounds a lot like creating inworld content, right? Your world, your imagination, and your proficiency with Blender and Photoshop. Only with a lot less Blender and Photoshop and a lot more C++.

Where do developers get this code and do this fun stuff with it? Linden Lab and any Third Party Viewers on the Linden-approved TPV list keep their released code and most of their unreleased code in online spaces called repositories. It's available for anyone to view or download. Whether you can make sense of it or not is another story.

But the important thing is that some people can. And not all of them are on the Phoenix Firestorm Project. 

The important thing, in other words, is that the Phoenix Firestorm team has no ownership, no monopoly, no exclusive claim to the Phoenix code. It means that anyone with the desire and the know-how can dive right in and claim the continuation of Phoenix's development as their own ambitious project. Not just one person. Lots of people. Lots of Phoenix forks can come out of the Phoenix code.

They'd have to change the name, and if they wanted it on the TPV directory, they'd need to incorporate some original code, but there's zero reason why the Phoenix Firestorm team's decision to no longer be the ones developing Phoenix should mean the viewer dies.

All you need is the desire and the know-how, and YOU can be Phoenix's savior. YOU can be the one whom Phoenix fans adore for your passion to keep the viewer alive. YOU can do for Phoenix users what was once done for Emerald users back in 2010, pulling the "viewer from the ashes" from, well, the ashes. YOU can be -- fine, I'll just say it -- the Jessica Lyon of 2013.

But there's that one hangup: the fact that this task has two requirements, both desire and know-how. Which means there are Phoenatics saying, "I'd love to do that, but I don't know anything about coding!" and there are developers saying, "Well sure, I could do that… if I cared."

The trouble for Phoenatics is not solely that our team no longer wants to work on -- and, soon, won't be supporting -- Phoenix. The trouble is that there may be no one else with development background who wants to, either. There seems to be no overlap between those with desire and those with know-how. Why is that?

Let's crank out some theories.

Theory 1: Developers are technologically progressive, and most have moved on to V3 viewers.

This can work as a partial explanation but not a full one, since folks generally have lots of different reasons for their viewer choices. It does, however, thin the herd for potential candidates considerably. Although there are still coders, developers, and self-compilers who prefer Phoenix over Firestorm, they seem to be in the minority, and an ever-shrinking minority at that.

The most common reasons that people remain on Phoenix are less likely to apply to the people most equipped to keep it going.
  • Developers are more likely to keep their systems up to date than most of us, so they are seldom the ones being held back on an old viewer because of their hardware.
  • If there's something they hate about a viewer (like Firestorm), they are more likely to know how to change it themselves rather than avoid it completely or know the correct avenues (JIRA) for requesting the change.
  • Many spend more use hours inworld, which means more of a chance to push themselves to get used to the V3 interface even if they can't improve on it themselves.
  • If they experience poorer performance on V3s than on V1s, they're more likely to know what adjustments to make at their end to compensate.

There are certainly developers the above points don't apply to. I'm not gonna say they aren't out there. There are even devs on our team who still use Phoenix. But my general impression is that the vast pool of Phoenatics who would be passionate enough to fuel a revival simply does not include a lot of people who possess the expertise to do it, largely because most of the folks with expertise have already moved on.

Meanwhile, most of the V1-using developers around are already spoken for.

Theory 2: V1 developers are already hard at work on their own projects.

There are, in fact, two V1-based viewers under active development -- Singularity and CoolVL -- whose developers clearly challenge Theory 1. Are developers like Siana Gearz and Henri Beauchamp contenders to the savior-of-Phoenix throne? They could be if they wanted to be, knowledge-wise, but I have the feeling they're more ready to watch their own viewers' user numbers go up in the near future.

You see, what you may not know is that these viewers have had releases more recently than Phoenix and have thus advanced beyond Phoenix in some areas, such as multiple clothing layer support (the ability to wear more than one tattoo, alpha layer, or other clothing item on the same system layer -- not to be confused with multiple attachments, which Phoenix has had for two years). If existing V1s were to refashion themselves as Phoenix forks, they'd actually be moving backward. Phoenix hasn't been the most advanced V1 viewer in a long time. Anything these devs wanted to draw from Phoenix in terms of code content has been available to them for months.

In other words, the revival has long been in progress. Just not by our team. Or even by people who would associate themselves with the Phoenix name. But they're there for the V1 diehards, and I'm sure they'll be happy to see your downloads.

Those developers, in fact, have done most of the work that Phoenix pulled in during its final six months of development -- most notably, mesh rendering, built by Henri Beauchamp. Our devs did the work of merging it in, but the original coding was done by others. 

If Singularity and Cool aren't what you're looking for -- if nothing will do for you except an actual Phoenix resurrection -- then let's tabulate… now you need someone who not only has the desire to develop a V1 and the skill to develop a V1 but who isn't already busy with their own V1 project.

Theory 3: Keeping a V1 viewer compatible with a V3 world is difficult and time-consuming.

Well… it is. It's the entire reason for where we are now.

Theories 1 and 2 only explain part of the reason why no one so far has jumped in to pump new wind into Phoenix's sails. Number 3 takes care of the rest. It explains not only why our team doesn't want to do it but why we may find that no one else does, either. Or at least no one has been making a visible effort so far. The last major Phoenix release was a year ago this month, with a minor one in March 2012. Jessica Lyon warned that Phoenix 1.6.1 would be one of the last Phoenix releases 53 weeks ago. Those were 53 weeks during which someone could've gotten their butt in gear to be ready for the final end to development and support.

Didn't happen.

Of course, now that the cat is out of the bag about the team's decision to move away from Phoenix, we might see people stepping forward. If someone does end up coming to bat for Team Phoenix, then their first essential task is going to be preparing the viewer to be compatible with server-side baking. This is a fix for avatar bake issues (think clouds, ruths, blurry people, and unintended nudity) that Linden Lab will be rolling out some time in the New Year and that will considerably break the usability of any viewer that doesn't upgrade between now and then, Phoenix's included. There's no real disadvantage to using an unsupported viewer right now. But when that change comes, you'll be -- pardon my Esperanto -- up shit creek. Unless your favorite color is grey.

These hypothetical Phoenix-of-the-future devs will also probably want to work on pulling multi-layer support from the other V1 viewers to make Phoenix current. And if they're trying to get Phoenix's users before they migrate fully to another viewer, they might want to scramble some support resources together or prepare for a deluge of questions and requests for help.

It will be a significant amount of work and will take someone who has a true passion for Phoenix. If someone decides to do it, they can probably expect a moment of notoriety and a lot of grateful users at first, but that will fade as soon as those happy users start to take the viewer and its upkeep for granted. Eventually, there will be all the usual support and bug complaints, along with passive-aggressive reminiscences of how great the old Phoenix was (not because the new devs do anything wrong but for the same reason we still hear people fondly remembering Emerald and asking, "Why do none of these viewers run as well as that did?" and conveniently forgetting that its problems were not fewer but merely different), and whines about why it doesn't yet have that Awesome Feature X that all the V3s got weeks ago.

Goddess help them if they ever discover it's too much to handle, though. Take it from us… as hard as it is to jump into an endeavor like that, it's a lot harder to disengage from it.

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