Saturday, January 09, 2010

Google Wave

It’s been a while since I wrote a fawning post about how great Google technologies are, so it’s time I remedy that, and write a new fawning post about how great Google technologies are. Enter Google Wave. I started reading about it yesterday, and I think—I’m not sure, but I think—that I’m going to be blown away by this technology.

In a nutshell, Wave is a mashup of email, collaborative document writing (a la wikis), and instant messaging. In some ways this is simply incremental change to existing technology, but I think it’s one of those new ways of looking at things that has the potential to be a paradigm shift. To see what I mean, let’s take a very abbreviated look at the history of documents, email, and instant messaging:

  1. In the olden days, before computers were invented, people used to write documents using a pen, or with a typewriter, or using similar technologies. If they wanted to send a copy of that document to someone else, they would bring it to them, or send it by mail. That person, when they’d received the mail, could read the document, and mark it up using a pen or pencil, and mail it back to the original person. S/He could read those changes, and, if s/he so wished, write/print/type up another version of the document, incorporating any of the changes that s/he wanted to incorporate. If the people needed more immediate feedback than mail could provide, they could use a technology called the telephone to talk to each other, over great distances, for immediate feedback.
  2. Computers brought electronic versions of these technologies. Word processors and spreadsheet programs and presentation software replaced paper documents (or, at the very least, made it easier to create them—people still had a habit of printing them out, from time to time). Electronic mail, or email, replaced mail. We developed something called instant messaging for immediate communication, for those times when email was too slow, so that we can have a real-time conversation.
  3. These technologies changed how we communicate; instant messaging is largely replacing phone calls, even as it incorporates phone-like features (like voice chat) and improves on them (like video chat). Email is largely replacing physical mail, and the contempt we have for the speed of physical mail is apparent in its new moniker, “snail mail.” Email also changed the way that we correspond with each other; when you send an email, you can send it to multiple people, and when one replies to an email, the reply usually incorporates a copy of the original email, so that a conversation can be maintained. Email introduced the concept of reply all, which means that everyone can be included in the email conversation, and provide their input (if necessary). Emails can also be forwarded to others, even if they weren’t originally included, or, when replying to an email, you can simply add new people to the reply, if you think they should know about the conversation that’s happening.
  4. These technologies also changed the way that we wrote documents; with the ability to do everything electronically, we now had the ability to email a document to someone else, as an attachment, for them to read electronically, and then send a reply email back, with their comments on the document. Electronic documents made it much easier to incorporate changes, rather than having to write or type out another version of the document by hand.
  5. Soon the people making word processors and spreadsheets and presentation software started incorporating features into their products that made it even easier to do this. Things like track changes and the ability to add comments made it very easy to see what changes others were suggesting, and software got very good at merging different versions of documents together, even tracking who had made what changes.
  6. Looking for a way to keep our documents together in one place, people began creating document repositories. More than just a glorified file folder, these repositories included features like having multiple versions of a document, and workflow capabilities, and the ability to lock a document while editing it, so that nobody else can, until you’re done and you “check in” your changes.
  7. Even with these advances in editing, some people felt it wasn’t enough, and the wiki was born. A wiki was a web site that anyone could edit, and in some ways strove to replace the document. The obvious example is Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia that anyone can contribute to, but wikis have also been used for things like documentation for software projects. (Rather than having a series of documents that must be kept up to date, the documentation for the project is a [potentially] always up to date web site, that can easily be searched and updated.)
  8. Despite the advent of the wiki, the vast majority of people were still creating documents, and emailing them back and forth as attachments, and using their track changes features to make changes. (Or they were simply replying to the original email, and saying things like, “You spelled a word wrong on page 4, paragraph 6. The diagram on page 9 is incorrect.”) Then Google came along with Google Docs, and gave us technology to put a document online, and let multiple people edit it at once, collaboratively. Google Docs turned documents into mini wikis. Now, instead of emailing a document as an attachment, for the person to edit and send back, forcing you to incorporate the changes, you would simply email (or IM) a link to the document, and the person would edit the document itself.
And this is about where we stand today. Wikis still exist, but aside from Wikipedia, they aren’t that prevalent. Despite the fact that I and others like me think Google Docs are cool, most of us (including myself) are still using applications like Microsoft Office to create our documents, and most of us are still using email to add these documents as attachments, to send to others. Interestingly even when we have a document repository—like Sharepoint, for example—we’re often still sending the documents as attachments; we could just send a link to the document in the repository, but in many cases someone doesn’t have access to the repository, and the document author usually isn’t the repository maintainer, so it’s much quicker to just email a copy of the document than to go through the red tape of getting the person granted access to the section of the repository that they need, to read the document. Email is, by far, the most prevalent means of communication, but instant messaging has also become an indispensable tool, both for work and personal use.

But still, even with the advances in technology we’re down to email (a replacement of snail mail, with some obvious improvements), instant messaging (a replacement of the telephone, with some obvious improvements), and electronic forms of documents (with some obvious improvements in how they’re created, but still, at the end of the day, are very much centred around the end product: the document.) Wikis are on the fringes, as a potential replacement for documents, but they haven’t gained traction as such.

So all of this to say, what is Google Wave? As mentioned, in some ways, it’s incremental technology, combining documents, email, and instant messaging into one technology. That was my first thought, when watching the hour and twenty minute long video where it was introduced. (Just in case that link expires, here’s the direct link to the YouTube video.) You can create a document, and multiple people can collaborate on it—just like Google Docs, you might say. You can receive notifications in your “inbox” when there are changes—just like in email, you might say (with a bit of an improvement). If people are online at the same time, you can see the changes they’re making as they make them, and you can send each other messages—just like instant messaging, you might say. Just like email, you can send someone a message, but when they respond to that message, they’re not limited to the usual message/response format we’re used to for email.

But here’s where the paradigm shift came in for me: email, documents, and instant messaging are all electronic versions of things we already used to do; with Google Wave, we have a potential replacement for email, documents, and instant messaging, creating a new paradigm that’s based on what computers can do, instead of simply trying to do the same old things we always did, with incremental improvements. (See this post on the Google Blog for an expansion on this.) With Google Wave, the line between an email and a document and an instant messaging conversation becomes blurred; what, really, is the difference between an email and a document? For the most part, just the length, and the means by which one can share it.

Today, when I want to communicate with someone, I have a few options:
  • For a quick conversation with a quick answer, I can open my IM client, see if the person is online, and start a conversation. If I want, I can include multiple people in the conversation (although most IM clients will limit this to around a half dozen people or so).
  • For something a bit more detailed, I can write an email, and send it to the person or people I want to communicate with. They can read the email, or, if required or desired, they can respond to it, and add their thoughts or make corrections on my original thoughts.
  • For something that I want to make more permanent and/or official, I can write a document, and email it as an attachment or put it in a document repository. Others can read the document, and, if required or desired, they can send an email back to me, with their thoughts or corrections. If they have permission, maybe they can edit the document itself, in the document repository, and their changes will become part of the document.
Three different ways of communicating my ideas, depending on the nature of those ideas. With Google Wave, all three of these would be something called a wave. I want to communicate something to a person or people, so I create my initial communication, it shows up in their inbox, and they can communicate back in the manner that they see fit; changes to the content, comments off to the side of the content, private messages to some people who are part of the wave but not to others… whatever makes sense. If the conversation becomes detailed/important enough, it will be shared and seen by more and more people, just like a document might in today’s world. If not, it might be a simple short communication between two people, just like an IM conversation might in today’s world.

We currently have three levels of “permanence” for our communications, from the throwaway IM conversations to the slightly more permanent emails—which are still locked in our inboxes, to be seen only by us and people we forward the emails to—to documents, which become artefacts and semi-permanent records of our thoughts or findings on a subject. Waves make these distinctions obsolete, and the only distinction in the wave world is how many people the information is shared with. (One question in my mind, however, is whether waves will have the immediacy of instant messaging; I can easily see that we might no longer need a distinction between email and documents, but when I get an IM, in today’s world, it’s something immediate, that I respond to immediately; will that still be the case, if it’s just one more wave hitting my inbox? I’m not sure.

Email has been around since the beginning of the internet, and, as mentioned, is the most prevalent form of communication on the internet. With Google Wave, we may have a serious contender for a new form of communication, with the potential to replace email. We may also have a new way of doing wiki-like things that will be more popular than wikis ever became.

It should also be mentioned that Google is doing this all open source, and creating generic protocols that can be used; this isn’t just a closed system, where you’d have to sign up with Google to get access. You can create a corporate “wave server,” similar to how we have corporate email servers today. And, just like email today, you’d have the ability to add people to your waves that aren’t on your corporate wave server (just like you can send emails to anyone on the internet), but also not give them access to waves that they shouldn’t have access to.

Unfortunately, Google Wave isn’t yet completely open to the public; you can just sign up, and they’ll let you know when you can join. So I’m going to sign up, and play with it when they let me in. Of course, it won’t really do me any good until I know someone else who uses it.

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