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Google Wave

I tend not to be an early adopter of tech. With software, it’s because most software in the world exists to solve problems that I don’t have. With hardware, it’s that and the fact that new hardware is expensive as well.

Thus it is that I only recently joined Google Wave.

My impression before joining, based hazily upon half-remembered opinions I’d seen in the tech news and blogs, was that it was (like the laser) a solution in search of a problem. Nobody seemed to know quite what to do with it, at least at first.

It’s not that hard a problem: as email is optimized for two-party communication, wave is optimized for n-party communication. At its most basic, it falls back to simple email: asynchronous communication between two parties. If both parties happen to be online simultaneously, Wave updates the conversation in realtime. The content is stored online forever on a remote server whose administration and upkeep costs have been abstracted away from the user experience. None of this is beyond the capabilities of modern email.

Wave’s advantages come into play when more than one person is interested in the conversation. Native threading of replies lets sub-discussions happen naturally. Collaborative editing tools allow people to improve working copies of a document without the hassle of mailing the current revision to every person as each edit is made. The internet nature of the thing is exploited to give each message a unique URL, meaning that wikis are an extremely natural application of the technology. At the same time, permissions are all managed by the overall Google structure.

The most common use case for Wave in the general zeitgeist is that it’s useful for online gaming. There’s that, but there are also much simpler, more general cases. For example, my little brother’s birthday is coming up. Everyone in my family is going to get him something, but we’ll want to converse before buying both to share gift ideas and to ensure that we don’t duplicate gifts. Wave is very well suited for that sort of discussion. With email there is a list of recipients that must be managed per reply and a message-centric format which encourages excerpting and replies to all, generating much traffic and taking much inbox space. Wave’s format identifies the conversation itself as central instead, reducing traffic and repetition. In the end, it reduces the process involved in having the discussion, which makes it the superior technology.

Email has one major advantage that Wave currently lacks: interoperability. Email is at heart a message format defined by SMTP and extended with MIME. Any client or server conforming to the format and performing the expected operations will interoperate with any other, which has lead to the ubiquity of the tech. Wave is, for now at least, an application, not a format. To get on Wave, you need a Google account and an invite from a current wave user. Then you use the Google viewer to view the waves on the Google server. It is very much a one-company phenomenon. This, I believe, is to Google’s detriment. If they open the format and ideally the current software implementing it, wave could eventually become as big as email. It would no more be tied to Google than email is to ARPA, but it would be everywhere. Right now, Wave can’t replace email as a primary means of communication: even if I could sell the idea to everyone with whom I wanted to converse, they couldn’t all get accounts. Opening the format might change that.

Wave is still beta tech, and it is very obvious in places. For example, right now, anyone can edit any message in any conversation in which they are a participant. One major requirement for the final version will be the implementation of various levels of access control. Relatedly, there is some version control for the textual content, but rich content and in particular dynamic widgets which are deleted are gone forever.

Still, this is a technology with some real potential, particularly if some means of interoperability is established with classic email. Once it’s cleaned up, polished, and open-sourced, I can see it being big. Until then, it will remain a niche product.

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