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Making (Google) Waves

Being a geek at heart I instantly got excited when Google presented Wave to developers attending the I/O Conference. They call Wave a “personal communication and collaboration tool” when they unveiled it to the public for the first time. Since then a digital divide has opened up: those who have Google Wave accounts and those who want one.

For some reason that has many heads shaking in disgust they opted to not immediately release it to the general public like they would do with BETA versions but instead do it in waves of a couple hundred-thousand each. So besides from working for Google or being close to them in any other way, the only way to get a coveted Google Wave account was to wait to be nominated by one of the few members who have nomination rights. The first bunch of accounts went to people who are looking to write plugins aka “bots” to add more functionalities.

After a few minutes of experimenting you start to understand how to edit Waves. You can double-click into a body of text to get an option to edit. Once you do, all other people watching the wave will see your named cursor making the modifications almost live. You can also respond to specific blocks by clicking on their lower border. At the end of a thread you get “Continue this thread”, on a post in between you see “Insert Reply here”.

Due to my interaction with the iPhone developer community and me making no secret out of my wish to get on Wave, some friendly colleague blessed me with an invitation and two days later I was on. If you want to use Wave for something more than just a glorified rich text editor, you need to have contacts to “wave” at. So I started a wave where I am adding every iPhone developer who also happens to have a Wave account.

Wave

If you happen to have a Google Wave account yourself then please wave me at oliver.drobnik@googlewave.com. I am still “collecting” developers. As of this writing there are 16 developers on it. If you open the wave you see the other participants at the top and by clicking on their icons you can add them to your own contacts. The experiment is to see if some creativity could could be sparked if you just get enough like-minded people in the same place.

I am excited about Wave because in daily life I find myself in many situations where I get e-mails with just one line of text that would have been better put in a tweet or instant message. And if you respond to specific parts of the message all the original text is quoted and mangled differently between different e-mail clients. Wave could solve this problem by having one Wave being one topic that is being structured by all its participants. The original bits stay intact. Also you can play back a wave to step through all the changes that where made over time to find out who is responsible for a specific edit.

Wave in mobile Safari

Google Wave can be seen as a the bold attempt to make e-mail and instant messaging obsolete, but it can only achieve this if it reaches critical mass sooner rather than later. It was only 2 years ago, with the purchase of my first iPhone, that I got e-mails working and in sync between my mobile device, my Exchange mail server and my Mac. To make Wave a success over just being a glorified geekery about how cool it is to have multiple cursors editing the same document, there needs to be total integration into the platforms we already use. And I mean BINARY integration. Not just a browser window into a cloud but also offline capability and a mobile UI that will convince people to make Wave their primary means of communication.

Yesterday I also experimented around with the mobile version of Wave. If you access it with your iPhone’s safari you get a warning about it not being supported, but you can proceed at your own risk. Basic reading and responding to threads works well, though after a while you see why its not yet “officially supported”. Well, because of the ALPHA status its not even inofficially supported, but you find that some of the functions just don’t work. For example I found no way how I could enter editing mode for an existing Wave, some miniature buttons don’t do anything when tapped. But it is clear that Google is making an effort, because at first glance it looks quite usable even over 3G.

People, or the current lack thereof, are just one of several factors that need to be addressed to make Wave a success. The other main reason for people writing a blog and trying to interact with readers and friends alike is that you will be able to embed waves into blogs retaining the possibility of commenting and collaborative editing. Somebody could ask me a question and I could elaborate on the answer in a Wave. Once everything has been ironed out I can publish the wave to an article.

One question that’s been on my mind is if Google Wave will also be capable of replacing Wikis. There are many people who either keep all their “documentation” in their mail client or meticulously sort them into their personal Wikis. Or somewhere in between, say text files on harddisks. Wave offers folders and custom searches, but I don’t see yet how you can organize knowledge on a larger scale with it. But maybe down the road we will also edit Wikis from within Google Wave.

Finally the promise is also to be an open standard based on open source. Companies will be able to set up their own Wave servers and provide identity to users. Still, through a process called federation, the promise is to still be able to interact with Waves hosted on Google or other Wave servers. That is clearly the way ahead because even though Google claims to “not be evil” it is simply prudent to keep your confidential data on your own servers.

PS: One video on YouTube was also making waves. Some creative guy used quotes from Pulp Fiction to demonstrate a few of the things you can do in a wave.


Categories: Tools

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