What do you get when you use e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, wikis and other collaboration tools as a starting point for an entirely new communications model? The answer is Google Wave.
Google previewed its latest Web-based application at the Google I/O developer's conference this week. The Google Maps team, lead by Lars and Jens Rasmussen, developed the application to allow people to communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps and other tools.
Wave is the Rasmussens' answer to questions like: Could a single communications model span all or most of the systems in use on the Web today, in one smooth continuum? And what if we tried designing a communications system that took advantage of computers' current abilities, rather than imitating nonelectronic forms? It took the brothers two years to come up with some answers that take the form of Wave.
Catching the Wave
In Google Wave you create a wave, which often starts with instant messaging, and add people to it. Everyone on your wave can use richly formatted text, photos, gadgets and even feeds from other sources on the Web. They can insert a reply or edit the wave directly.
"It's concurrent rich-text editing, where you see on your screen nearly instantly what your fellow collaborators are typing in your wave," said Lars Rasmussen, a software engineering manager at Google. "That means Google Wave is just as well suited for quick messages as for persistent content -- it allows for both collaboration and communication. You can also use 'playback' to rewind the wave and see how it evolved."
Wave is an HTML 5 app, but it can also be considered a platform with a rich set of open APIs that allow developers to embed waves in other Web services, and to build new extensions that work inside waves. The Google Wave protocol is the underlying format for storing and the means of sharing waves. Google plans to open-source the code.
"Google envisions Wave evolving over time as an open-source project," said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. "It's somewhat analogous to Android in that it's a fairly major project that Google is going to open-source and hope that developers build on it and popularize it."
The Cloud Factor
Wave is positioned as a successor to e-mail and instant messaging, a reinvention of these tools that takes a fresh look at what people need in communication and collaboration online. It also appears to be part of a larger cloud strategy, where computing is moving away from the desktop onto the cloud through browsers.
"The big picture is the cloud. Then one level down is Chrome as an alternative to the desktop. Then there apps that exist within the browser and the cloud that are not on the PC. Then there's the mobile component, because mobile is now an important extension for how people access content on the go," Sterling said. "There's a coherent logic behind all of this, but it's a complex shift for the end user. It will be difficult to change ingrained user behavior with e-mail and IM."