Eighty percent of businesses will have a presence in a virtual world, says a new Gartner report that otherwise heaps suspicion on the value of Second Life e-commerce.

The tech research firm advises businesses to “limit substantial financial investments until the environments stabilise and mature”.

Giants like Toyota and Adidas, as well as smaller enterprises, have all opened storefronts in Second Life in recent months as hype surrounding the 3D environment and its potential for e-commerce and marketing reached fever pitch.

Gartner said the majority of internet users and Fortune 500 companies would be inside such worlds by 2011, but analyst Steve Prentice advised caution before frippery.

“The collaborative and community-related aspects of these environments will dominate in the future, and significant transaction-based commercial opportunities will be limited to niche areas, which have yet to be clearly identified,” he said.

“Meaningful corporate use of public virtual worlds/platforms will lag considerably behind individual consumer use as enterprises struggle to develop appropriate and relevant business models.”

Prentice laid down “five laws” for those companies considering emerging into worlds like Second Life:

  1. Virtual worlds are not games.
  2. Behind every avatar is a real person.
  3. Be relevant and add value.
  4. Understand and contain the downside.
  5. This is a long haul.