Written by Mark Randall
Anger continues to grow among universe owners and hosting providers, as policy changes enacted by AW3DU (Formerly AW, Inc) CEO Rick Noll lead to galaxies and universes shutting down when faced with unexpected annual hosting fees.
For those only familiar with the main Activeworlds Universe (“AW”) you may be surprised to know that that once upon a time the Activeworlds software was in high demand and widely used by many social, corporate and educational groups in their own private environments.
In the main universe, the most private area you can get is your own world, hosted either by yourself, a third party provider, or AWI. You would pay an annual license fee which would allows you to run it as part of the larger Activeworlds universe, accept citizens into it, and have full rights within it to do as you please.
However, just having a world would leave you tied to the requirements of the universe that it was connected to, for example, if you wanted to invite your out-of-game friends in to help you build, each one would need to buy their own annual citizenship (previously $69.95 per year) to be able to do so.
Many groups, not wanting to be limited by the options imposed in the main universe, instead chose to purchase a dedicated galaxy or universe license directly from Activeworlds, Inc. This license, combined with properly installed “Uniserver” software, would provide you with perpetual access to your own Activeworlds-based, but otherwise completely separate part of VR.
For the privilege of having your own dedicated VR environment, license fees were high, starting at thousands of dollars for a low end galaxy server, ranging up to a hundred thousand dollars for an unlimited universe.
Uniserver pricing taken from AWI Website (2016-05-23)
The difference between a galaxy and a universe is that a galaxy is licensed to only be able to run a single world at once, whereas a universe is capable of running multiple worlds, be it one, or be it a thousand, subject to the total area area of online worlds being less than the limit specified by the license type purchased.
Importantly, fees were explicitly one-off. Software upgrades were free for the first year, and afterwards you would have to make another one-off 40% payment of the price of your original license if you wanted to upgrade, but crucially, neither of these was a requirement. If a universe owner wanted to stay using Activeworlds 4.1, they could.
A lot of universes exercised that right not to upgrade, instead sticking with their one-off purchase and hosting their servers themselves to avoid incurring additional high costs, needing nothing more than an updated license file from AWI each year.
However, in recent years, in a change that is only just becoming widely known, Activeworlds CEO Rick Noll is alleged to have imposed blanket changes upon universe and galaxy owners, new and old, refusing to renew them unless they also HOSTED their universes with AWI at significant cost.
The official Activeworlds website lists their hosting as costing $1999/year, plus an extra $800/year in database hosting, plus a $600 setup fee. In total this would mean that for a universe to renew they could be hit by an initial fee of around $3,400 followed by $2,800 each year after, just to access the universe that they might have spent many years, and tens of thousands of hours working on.
To put it into perspective, the CPU and memory requirements of hosting an Activeworlds universe server are miniscule, and can easily be met by an Amazon EC2 nano instance with 1 CPU and 0.5GB of RAM costing $5 per month, or $60 per year, although obviously requiring time and technical skill to install, maintain and administer.
For most universe owners, having their own servers to provide hosting for websites, object paths, bots and other tools, the cost was practically zero.
Faced with a choice of massive annual fees, or shuttering their universes, many chose the latter, giving up on the aging Activeworlds technology entirely.
Activeworlds, Inc (now AW3DU) has yet to make a public statement on the matter, instead only asking an angry galaxy owner to contact them via email.
Speculation is rife as to the reasoning behind this policy change, with some former hosting providers indicating that it had been claimed to be a protection against the illegal distribution of uniserver software.
What is apparent, is that for a company like AW, struggling to pay its bills, trying to force thousands of dollars a year from existing clients just to keep what they already have, might seem like an attractive prospect indeed.
The legality and morality of of doing so, however, is up for debate.
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