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Google Wave Could Change The Way We Work

t’s just a developer preview for now, but it’s got a new metaphor for collaboration, and is highly customisable. Jason Brooks reckons we could see a lot more of Google Wave

eWEEK Labs’ Jim Rapoza has reviewed the developer preview edition of Google Wave, the much-buzzed-about new communications project that Google announced but didn’t quite unveil at its I/O developer conference in May.

I’ve spent a bit of time with Wave myself, and I met recently with Wave’s creators for a demonstration. I agree with Jim that the project is in a fairly rough state right now. In contrast to the arguably over-applied “beta” label, when Google calls Wave a developer preview, it definitely means it.

Still, I find Wave very interesting and believe it can have a big impact on the productivity application landscape if it’s implemented well.

First, I like the wave metaphor for approaching the digital works that we create. The life cycles of conversations and collaborative documents have their crests and the troughs of activity as they accrue replies and edits. Actually, I was having trouble wrapping my mind around the concept until Wave co-creator Lars Rasmussen showed me a playback of a “real” wave used by his group at Google.

The Wave playback began with one of the developers writing or pasting the document into a new Wave — the term Google uses for fully stand-alone discussions. The author then added collaborators to the Wave, and, soon, nested discussions and document edits started popping up throughout the Wave. The Wave swelled as collaborators added their comments and questions inline, and shrank as the Wave’s owner addressed and pruned back the additions. Finally, the edits trailed off and the Wave settled into its finished form.

A new visualisation

The process here isn’t groundbreaking. What’s compelling, though, is the way that Google Wave rolls up all the particles of conversation and collaboration that would have otherwise ended up scattered across various mailboxes, chat logs and draft documents stored on the desktops of individual contributors.

Even better, the Wave playback option allows the team to strip out all these artefacts of collaboration from the working draft without losing them altogether — everything remains accessible through the Wave playback.

Besides the wave metaphor, the other element of Google Wave that intrigues me is its support for robot participants, which can sit inside a Wave along with human collaborators and carry out programmatic functions. These include following behind you, correcting the formatting of the code you write, fetching Twitter feed items and pasting them into your Waves, or returning Wikipedia definitions for selected terms.

As with the rest of the project, the current state of Wave robots is rough, but these little automatons offer a promising route for adding arbitrary features to particular Waves without overloading every Wave with excessive features.
Finally, the most important part of the Google Wave initiative is that the company is approaching Wave not only as a new application to add to its Apps stable but also as a new protocol.

Such a protocol can achieve success only if it’s adopted outside of Google’s campus walls (and network firewalls). Google has posted the draft specification for the Wave protocol online, along with a broad-reaching license for any Google patents that cover the technology.

What’s more, Google has announced its plans to open source the code behind Wave.

As an application, Wave shows promise, but as I’ve written over the past several weeks regarding Google and other Web application providers, organisations must approach applications tied inexorably to a single provider with caution. By pushing Wave forward as a protocol, complete with an open-source reference implementation, Google is opening the door to a mix of private and third-party hosted Wave clients and servers.

Google has a lot of bug squashing work to do before it opens the platform to broader public access sometime near the end of this year or early next year. And whether Wave picks up speed after that will depend on developer and user uptake. Wave’s appealing feature set and sustainable model for growth won’t be enough on their own to make Wave a success, but I’d say the project is off to a promising start.

Jason Brooks is executive editor of eWEEK.com