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12/17/2009
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Review: Google Wave An Experimental Ride

The collaboration system combines e-mail, instant messaging, message boards, Wikis, and document-sharing tools -- to create something completely new.

To paraphrase Edwin Starr: Wave -- what is it good for?

The answer: A little of everything.

Almost nothing else Google has created has generated as much interest, and as much confusion, as Wave. Just describing it to others forces you to pick your words carefully -- it's not e-mail, or instant messaging, or a Web chat system, or a message board, or a collaborative-document system, but a hybrid of many features from all of those things.

"Experimental" is the most encompassing word for Wave, in the positive and negative senses of the word. Mitch Wagner believes Wave is one of Google's "concept car" creations -- a showcase for a slew of technologies that will eventually be repackaged in other forms. The most crucial being Wave's native protocol, which in theory can be implemented by anyone who wants to write a client or server for it.

In this article I'm going to walk through Wave as it embodies the aspects of a number of other things we should all be familiar with: e-mail, wikis, blogs, instant messaging, online collaboration apps, and many more. In some cases it substitutes quite ably for the item in question; sometimes, it's short of the mark (and not just because the other guy you want to involve in what you're doing doesn't yet have a Wave account).

E-mail

If Wave has been described as any one thing, it's as an e-mail killer -- a way to take the inbox/message/threaded-discussion metaphor and push it into an entirely new realm. In many ways, at first glance, Wave does resemble an e-mail client of sorts: there's an inbox, there are folders, and the messages resemble e-mail messages organized into discussion threads.

These design analogies are probably quite deliberate. Most people have trouble working with something that presents absolutely no parallels to what they know and worth with -- and if there's one environment that even most non-technical people are familiar with, it's an e-mail client (be it Outlook or Google's own Gmail). Others have superficially compared Wave to "Microsoft Outlook / Lotus Notes on steroids," since Outlook (especially in conjunction with Microsoft Exchange) sports a great deal more than just mail: contact management, calendaring, note-taking, etc.

Because Wave is an invitation-only protocol -- at least in its current incarnation -- that makes it a good deal more secure than e-mail. Conversations are only possible among trusted peers. What's not present is a sense that Wave can be transitional -- e.g., you can't take your existing e-mail and slurp it up into Wave. Maybe this isn't so bad, since it further underscores the difference between the two, and since Wave itself is not at this time intended to eclipse other, more broadly accepted things.

Perhaps Google's stance with such things is that they will provide just enough API-level functionality to allow other people to mortar over those gaps. Example: a third-party bot allows people to be automatically notified by e-mail when changes are made to a given conversation. A good idea, but it's something that belongs in Wave by default -- especially this early on in Wave's evolution.

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