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First Look: Google Wave

I've written an article titled "Need to Know: Google Wave," that will appear in the July 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro Magazine. I'll publish the full article here on the SuperSite when possible, but for now, here's an excerpt with some images and links where you can get more information. Google Wave is a big deal, a game changer, and it is has deep implications for Microsoft and users of the software giant's products.

At its annual Google I/O conference this week, Google unveiled Google Wave, a forthcoming online service that will provide a personal communications and collaboration hub for users and an extensible platform for developers. Google's descriptions of Wave are both goofy and unhelpful--example: "Google Wave can make you more productive even when you're having fun"--and the service isn't available yet for testing. What exactly is this thing? Here's what you need to know about Google Wave.

Though unspoken this explicitly by Google, it's pretty clear that Google Wave is the online giant's social networking play, an attempt to wrestle away some usage share from services like Twitter and Facebook, obviously, but also with Microsoft's surprisingly popular SharePoint. In atypical fashion--Google's tools are usually quite Spartan and to the point, like web versions of UNIX command line utilities--Google Wave is also a Utopian attempt to rewrite the rules of email, instant messaging, document and image collaboration, and other tasks. It is an uber-service, the type of over-thinking we typically associate with Microsoft and not Google.

Google explains this leap by noting that today's email and IM solutions emulate communication models that date back to the 1960s. Google Wave, it says, is an attempt to rethink these activities as if they had just been invented and implemented with modern, web-based technologies. In Google's view, the web has already won the platform wars, which is convenient for the company, since Google, of course, primarily makes web-based services. (And unlike most other Google services, Google Wave is being open-sourced because the company would like to see this technology adopted and extended as broadly as possible. Google notes that it would like to see Wave servers become as ubiquitous as SMTP servers.)

Put simply, Google Wave rethinks the way we communicate online. In Wave parlance, individuals will engage in "hosted communications" that are called waves. Waves can consist of any combination conversations (such as email and IM) and documents (collaboration). They provide for rich interaction via text, photos, videos, maps, and more, according to Google. From a usage standpoint, a wave is sort of like an email thread except that it can happen in real time (like IM), is always considered live, and participants can jump in and out of the conversation at any time. A playback capability allows participants to "rewind" the wave at any point and review what's already happened. Edits can be made to any part of the wave at any time, and it's always possible to see who did what. If you think of how an email thread and an IM conversation might be combined into a single entity, that's pretty much a wave.

To the user, Google Wave is a web-based application that runs completely in the browser. It's based on HTML 5 and Google Web Toolkit, and long time Microsoft users will recognize the basic layout as the one that was made famous by Microsoft Outlook. It features a multi-pane ("panel" to Google) interface with Navigation ("folders" like Inbox) and Contacts panes on the left, the selected folder in the middle (like Inbox, which Google calls the Search panel), and, on the right, the selected wave (the message, in an email application). Familiarity with Outlook and other email applications was no doubt intentional, and it will help users make the transition to this new communications and collaboration model.

Google Wave
The Google Wave web application.

When you create a new wave, you typically start as you would with an email message, by typing a message (as contrasted with an IM where you would always select a contact or group of contacts first). You can then add users--or participants, as Wave calls them--using a pop-up window.

Google Wave
Adding participants to a wave.

To users who are asked to participate in a wave, the experience is very much like email. You can hit a Reply to write your own message response. This can happen offline, where the conversation is conducted like a long-distance chess match per email, or in real-time, as with IM, where the other participants can see you formulating your response as you go. The other big difference is that because waves are "hosted conversations," you can easily jump in anywhere an reply to any part of the conversation. With email, previous parts of the conversation are typically bulk pasted into your reply, making it hard for anyone to jump around in the conversation at a later time. You can even split a previous message anywhere and reply to just a certain part of it.

Google Wave
A complex, unstructured wave.

You can also drag and drop multimedia content, like pictures and video, into a wave. (Or, it will. This feature isn't actually supported by the HTML 5 standard, so Google is working to get it added.) This works as you'd expect, with thumbnail previews that appear almost immediately while the full images (or video) download in the background. In the case of pictures, an online slideshow is created, and when you compare this capability to photo sharing via email or IM, it's quite an improvement. But thanks to the ability to create Wave gadgets, you could actually add a blog or web site to a wave like a traditional contact; that way, every time photos were added, they would automatically be published to that site as well.

I'll have more soon. But in the meantime, you can watch the entire Google Wave introduction in the YouTube video of the Google I/O Day 2 Keynote:

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