Thursday, 20 August 2009

Google Wave: Panacea or daydream?

I finally got around to watching the Google Wave developer preview video last night. I'm a great fan of any tool that helps people work better together. If you've not heard of Wave, or not had time to investigate, it feels to me like a hybrid of e-mail, instant messaging, Wikis and SubEthaEdit. Users can create new waves (documents/conversations/communications), make them available to others, and work on them. Wave manages to (surprisingly elegantly) bridge the gap between e-mail, instant messaging and wikis. When you edit a wave, the other person can see your changes as you make them, one character at a time. On the other hand, if they aren't online, the next time they come back online, they'll see your wave waiting for them. This is pretty difficult to describe, but beautiful to watch, and it scales. Watch the video to see what I mean, but suffice to say something which starts off feeling like an e-mail can transparently become a discussion and the reverse is just as true.

There's no doubt in my mind that the technology involved is amazing, but from my perspective, the most interesting thing about the video is that it makes the scale of Google's ambition clear. Google are pretty openly hinting that this thing could become a rival to, or even replace e-mail, IM, Wikis and a whole bunch of other collaboration approaches with a single unified solution. Read that sentence again. A replacement for e-mail; a protocol and metaphor for communication that's been around in more or less its present form since 1982. That's 27 years. 7 years before Tim Berners-Lee wrote his first proposal outlining the workings of the World Wide Web. Google are either seriously confident, or seriously arrogant. Or both.

But. They might just succeed. Unlike many other Web 2.0 services such as Twitter, Google are (at least outwardly) trying hard to ensure that Wave doesn't become a walled garden. Even services such as Google Sites, which offer integration with the outside world using standard protocols (in the case of sites through HTML linking and RSS) don't provide the same level of integration seen in the standardised protocols that support e-mail, IRC and other 'old school' services.

So, what makes Wave different? Google have built, and more importantly released to the public a protocol that allows any old Tom, Dick and Harry to create and implement a Wave server. Moreover, because the protocol is not trivial, Google have open sourced reference implementations of the protocol, and in the video suggest that they're intending to open source the majority of the code-base of Google Wave itself so that competitors can download, tweak and run their own competing Wave services. These services will all federate, and make the experience broadly seamless regardless of which provider you choose to use. Like E-mail, USENET and IRC, information is only sent to the servers supporting users actively involved in the wave, opening the possibility of the (perhaps justifiably) paranoid running their own organisational Wave servers to ensure that content only leaves the corporate network when it is actively shared with a third party. This approach potentially eliminates a major barrier to adoption in the commercial world. Lastly, Wave provides support for Robots (intelligent agents) that can accomplish a multitude of tasks. Google demonstrated Robots that did things like integrating with Google's blogger service and it seems clear this technology could be extended to support integration with existing communication mechanisms, and in particular the big threat: e-mail.

How this all pans out remains to be seen. Google are not an academic organisation, and they must deliver value for their shareholders, but it's fair to say that they have a history of taking relatively large risks by taking on large scale projects with no obvious revenue model that would scare your average VC witless. Despite this, they're still here, and still profitable. I think it's reasonable to say that there's an excellent chance that Wave the product will be a success. I'm much more sceptical about Wave the global infrastructure, due in part to the complexity of the technology and consequent barriers to entry for competitors, but mainly due to something much more human: Inertia.

Regardless of the success of the Wave platform, the debate Wave is likely to stimulate can only be a good thing. The Wave preview opens its doors on September 30 2009 to the next 100,000 users. I have my fingers crossed.

1 comment:

gbdesai said...

Well I think it's clear that this is also targeted at replacing or at least displacing casual productivity suite functionality, and eventually more advanced capabilities. It's aiming at Microsoft marketshare and by making it open they avoid any direct issues with Microsoft.