Gartner urges caution on virtual-world business

Sites like Second Life can lead to real-world problems

Despite recent publicity about companies staking out territory in Second Life and other virtual worlds, companies that want to protect their brands or reputations should be cautious about operating on such Web sites, research firm Gartner warned Thursday.

While opportunities for corporate collaboration and communication in virtual worlds should not be ignored, companies should also keep in mind the potential risks they face from their involvement, said Steve Prentice, a Gartner analyst. "When planning enterprise activities in virtual worlds, an enterprise's awareness of the risks, as well as a reasoned and objective analysis of them, will enable it to objectively evaluate the overall situation and offset risks against often-nebulous benefits," Prentice said in a statement.

From IT-related security risks to possible confidentiality problems, Gartner listed several potential risks that companies should consider before opting into virtual life. Because of these risks, Gartner recommends that companies evaluate private virtual worlds that can be hosted behind their corporate firewall.

IT security risks can come into play when employees download unverified applications to company desktops, Gartner said. While there is not explicit evidence that these client applications represent a higher risk than others, the high frequency of updates makes control of a large virtual world application difficult. Next, because new accounts in virtual worlds are so easy to open, many people often have multiple avatars -- or virtual representatives of themselves -- in use, which can make it extremely difficult to ensure that an actual avatar represents the person who created it, Gartner contends.

"This lack of verifiable identity control or access management is a major deficiency in public virtual worlds and is having a significant impact on the potential use of virtual worlds for internal collaboration purposes," Gartner said.

Gartner also stressed that because virtual worlds are not secure environments discussions regarding confidential and commercially sensitive information should not take place in them. In addition, these electronic conversations could fall under regulatory rules involved in storing records.

Finally, Gartner warned that employee productivity might decline during the learning and adoption phases of virtual works, but said this alone isn't reason enough to reject possible benefits. ... "This shouldn't prevent enterprises from looking beyond initial phases toward the productivity benefits that may ensue," Gartner said in its research note. "Enterprises should keep an open mind and evaluate trials carefully to avoid premature and inappropriate decisions regarding access and value."

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Heather Havenstein

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