Saturday, May 30, 2009

Google Wave

What is Google Wave?

Google Wave is a 'next generation' email system. It takes cues from Gmail and builds a new model for conversation over the web. A simplistic way of looking at it is to say that it is a mash up of an email app, IM client, Wiki, blog, and photo sharing site. A more sophisticated way of seeing it is as email reimaged, or thinking about how one would build a communication system on the web starting from scratch.

Google Wave not only changes how we use email, but also how the nuts and bolts of it work. Resources (like images) are uploaded once and then shared where ever they need to be, in a document, a photo album, a blog, etc... And Wave will allow 'drag and drop' of images (and maybe other files?) into the browser directly from your desktop onto the web.

Instant Message or Email? Yes, both.

Currently, during an Instant Message conversation, each person waits while the other types. No more, as one person types, the other sees each word, indeed each letter, as they are typed. This instant and continual connection is what dissolves the line between what an email is and what an instant message is. Conversations can be conducted as they would in a current email environment, or can be treated like a chat session.

You say 'Conversation' I say 'Wave'

One of Gmail's innovations was the inventions of 'conversations'. In the 'old days', emails would be bounced back and forth between users and would whined up scattered across the inbox. But Gmail automatically consolidated all these emails into on expandable conversation. The new basic unit in Google Wave is simply called a Wave which is basically the same thing as a current Gmail conversation, but on steroids (legal ones of course). A Wave can be replied to like a conventional email, or the recipient can insert a reply anywhere in the original wave, so the reply has context. In addition, the recipient can edit the original email, treating it like a collaborative document.

This free wheeling editing capability could get confusing and downright dangerous if not for a basic feature built into the frame work of Google Wave: a timeline. This timeline can be used to 'roll back' the conversation within the wave to see who added or deleted what and when. It is a simple and intuitive method of tracking changes and makes this whole email thing much more elegant. You can seamlessly flow from a typical 'email' into a collaborative document to a chat and back again, the hole time being able to see exactly where the story started and how it grew.

Bona Fide

If it is not clear just how big of a step forward this is, know that Wave is from the same guys who did Google Maps. Google Maps completely revolutionized online maps. Every other mapping system has been chasing (copying) Google Maps for years. I expect the same will be true of Wave.

Mobile Integration

The developers of Google Wave have worked very hard to make all different kinds of communication seamless. Wave can be used like the email you know and love or like IM. But the developer's zeal for seamlessness did not stop there, they built the system from the ground up to work beautifully both on your desktop and on your mobile phone. There certainly is a difference between the mobile and desktop versions, but the parity between them far exceeds the differences.

For you, for me, it's free, it's Open Source.

Not only is the design and functionality of Wave extraordinary, but so is Google's approach to the platform, they are giving it away. Anyone can download and install Wave on their own server and run with it, no strings attached. The code is open and the dev team has made is easy to create 'extensions' that make Wave do what you want it to do. This is extremely powerful, what we have seen of Wave so far really is just the early iterations of the dev team, but Wave is more a frame work than a final product. I expect that Wave will evolve in many different ways in the coming years and that has the power to solidify it's continued success.

But when a developer takes Wave and makes it his own, that does not leave the developer on his own lonely product fork. Nope, Google Wave is designed to work with variants of itself. You can customize it and still have it play nice with someone else's customized Wave.

Plays nice with social networks

As I mentioned at the top, one of the core ideas is to create the content once and share it where every you want. That means plopping a Wave component down into your FaceBook page, should you be so inclined. Post a 'Wave' to blog? Sure thing, and it retains all its 'Wave like' properties. If you update the Wave, the Blog reflects that change as you change it.

Powerfully extensible

Google not only lets people mess with Wave, they want people to mess with Wave. The Wave dev team created a simple API for creating extensions. By doing this, they have invited a lot of people to the party. Think about how successful Firefox has become, in no small part because that is what they did. There are thousands of extensions for Firefox that let it do all kinds of things from grabbing video from YouTube to notifying you when you have a new email. Google is not staffed by dummies and they are not to proud to take a play out of the Firefox's playbook.

The Wave dev team has built a few of their own extensions to get the ball rolling. One of the most impressive is Rosie that instantly translates Waves into your language, letting you chat (in real time) with someone typing in a foreign language.

Other examples of Wave's extensions are:

  • Integrated with Twitter
  • Play Chess in real time in a Wave
  • (the aforementioned) ability to automatically post a Wave to a blog
And in this corner, from Redmond, Washington...

Wave is in beta now, open only to a select group of developers. It is scheduled to be released at the end of the summer (2009). As it stands, one glaring omission from Wave is calendar functionality. I have little doubt that it will be added in at some point. Maybe it is such a large feature set that it was not ready for the preview. Or maybe that functionality will be added through an extension. Or maybe, just maybe Google did not want to scare Microsoft too much.

I can not know or speculate if Google intentionally targeted Microsoft's Exchange server (that runs most company's email systems) or if the threat that Wave posses to Exchange is just a byproduct of Google's desire to build the next generation internet communication platform. Either way, Wave certainly is the scariest thing to happen for Microsoft since Firefox. In fact, it is significantly scarier.

If Wave proves to be reliable and secure, Exchange will have a competitor like nothing it has seen before. IT departments around the world will have the option of a wildly powerful, extensible, and controllable communications platform in Wave. And it is free. Compared to a buggy, semi-secure, closed, and expensive alternative (Exchange).

Wave lacks two things that Exchange has; Exchange is the leader so it is what IT departments know, and Exchange has integration with Outlook's calendar features. Outlook lets a company know who is doing what, when, and where. It is a massively powerful tool. If and when Wave adds similar (or, based on what we have seen from Wave so far, superior) features, Microsoft will be in real danger of loosing it's grip on the business market and by extension, it's grip on the operating system market. Oh, did I not mention, because Wave is completely web based, it does not matter what operating system people are using to access it, it is all the same. Unless you are running Internet Explorer which was distinctly absent from the list of browsers that Wave will work in. But then, if you are still running Internet Explorer, you have bigger problems...

There is a lot of work still to do on Wave, and a lot of ground it has to cover before it can even be considered a threat to Microsoft. But, in my mind, it is the first real challenge that could be a serious threat to Microsoft as a whole.

And to be frank, Microsoft does not look to be in a position to deal with a serious competitor right now. They look better now than they have for years, they are set to release Windows 7 that may be their first operating system that does not suck since Windows 2000. They recently launched their new search engine, 'bing' that also does not suck. It may even be on par with Google. But, 'not sucking' is no way to compete with a serious threat. And when you release a new product, it can not be 'just as good as', it needs to be better, otherwise who cares?

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