Thursday, October 1, 2009

Day One of Google Wave: Ground-Breaking Bones In Search of Flesh

Traditionally when a ship is launched, it splashes into the water with a nicely painted hull but with still quite a bit of work to be done on its innards. Thus it seems to be with Google Wave, the cutting-edge messaging and collaboration technology unveiled today in preview form to about 100,000 people who signed up to participate in its testing. I had signed up for the early access program the day that Wave was announced, so I was pleased to see this morning an invite to try it out. One quick click of an email link, and I was in to my Wave space. Great! It appeared to be pretty much what I had seen in the developer's preview several weeks ago, and the features overall seemed to work as advertised, albeit without some of the flashy edges like real-time text translation. Drag and drop contacts into waves, easy embedding of widgets, videos and images, easy editing and organizing - good stuff for something that was just a cutting-edge demo a few weeks ago. what? Who do I Wave with - or to? Fortunately Google had pre-populated my contacts list with a couple of social media mavens, so I had some hope for interactions right away. One of the pre-populated waves (message/collaboration threads) enabled me to invite up to eight other people to join Wave. That was the good news, but the bad news was that these people would be nominees for joining Wave - in other words, Google will add them as the technology allows them to handle more users gracefully. This is, after all a preview version of Wave technology, meaning that it's more about testing its ability to handle users at scale and basic features before they begin to invite people with less tolerance for the cutting edge of new technologies. I decided to put a message out on Twitter to see who might want an invite to Wave. Ooops. Everyone came out of the woodwork looking for an invite to the new hotness. Seven invites later (some of them grumbling that they couldn't play right away), I have one spare and a long waiting list of possible invites who I would love to Wave with, but still not too many people on the live system.

Even with these limitations, Wave is quite impressive right out of the box. There's a bit of day-one instability in the system, of course - sometimes waves notify you that they need to be reloaded and a mysterious resync icon pops up now and again - but for a cutting-edge technology that just got rolled out to 100,000 people worldwide a few hours ago, that's to be expected. What was remarkable is how intuitive it is to use Wave, though for those wanting step-by-step instructions on "how to" usage, there's a wave in your initial inbox with lots of videos and links to good support materials. You just click, start typing, drag this, tag that, and you're off and running. Most email and Facebook users should find Wave's features pretty easy to use. You can import contacts from your Gmail contacts list easily (assuming that they're on Wave, which is pretty hit or miss), which is nice, and some of your Google Profile information is imported automatically into Wave, though updates in Wave will not flow back into your main Profile page. In other words, at least on Day One, there's really not that much integration with production systems yet (sorry, C.C. Chapman, let's be honest about this).

What's particularly interesting is how Wave has layered the types of communications that you can receive and share. Your inbox works pretty much like an email inbox, overall, and there are expected email-like filters like spam, trash bin, and such, which are all wave collections. But then you notice that the Settings link pops up a list of waves. In other words, much of the functionality of wave will appear as collections of applications built into waves as opposed to separate features. That's a real, real important thing to watch, one-upping the embeddable apps and widgets that have been in use for a while on other platforms. It means that the architectural "bones" of Wave can remain very lean, while much of its functionality gets loaded as content "meat." This parallels some of the thinking that has gone into Google's Chrome browser and nascent Chrome OS operating system, as well: lean core technology, fleshy content.

The most interesting layer of communications, though, has yet to be populated. As you float your cursor over a navigation element called "Requests," the tooltip text that pops up says, "Waves from untrusted parties or sources." In other words, there will be a Wave channel in which you can receive less personal communications, presumably a combination of marketing messages and more public sharing of messages akin to that found in Twitter. While the phrasing of this description needs some serious work, the concept seems to be quite elegant. One set of waves from trusted contacts, others from more "out of the blue" sources, both of which are important, of course, but by default you get to manage your circles of trust on two levels. That's a one-up on both Twitter and Facebook, if Google can pull it off. Of course, using folders and tagging you can create filters that combine both trusted and more public waves, so you can mix up communities at will, presumably. That's an interesting and very flexible way to manage networks, enabling people to be marketing-oriented or downright spammy in their communications but not cluttering up one's primary inbox of trusted contacts.

It will be interesting to see how some of these features roll out into the enterprise-oriented version of Wave, particularly the Requests feature. Obviously there will have to be some additional plumbing installed on Wave to enable enterprises to enforce policies on who from outside an organization can join particular inner circles of waves. But assuming that this is in the works, Wave should make it extraordinarily easy to move resources outside of an organization into a circle of trust on very specific waves that can help them to collaborate very efficiently - without exposing other information assets that are meant to be kept more private. Clearly Google is thinking way down the road on how to integrate Wave with its other efforts to enhance workplace productivity.

So although there's really not much happening on Day One in Google Wave, it's exciting to be hands-on with these features and to get a sense of how Wave is going to fit in to Google's strategy in a more intuitive way. For all of its promise, though, Wave has a tough battle ahead. Increasingly mature competitors like Facebook and Twitter, already endowed with millions of users, can always decide to swing in their extensive feature and applications sets to add more Wave-like features to keep their communities happy. But Wave has the distinct advantage of being a platform that is part of Google's wide technology vision that encompasses messaging, email, collaboration, enterprise productivity, mobile applications, operating systems and more.

Microsoft and others will attempt to compete with this new technology, to be sure, but the contenders all have deep legacies of software and relationships that will be far more difficult to migrate to a fresh new environment than Google need worry about. Put simply, there just isn't any one else out there coming close to daring thoughts as big as those surrounding Wave. I certainly welcome more effective competition in any market, and Wave itself has much to prove in the weeks and months ahead, but when it comes to collaborative messaging that can span both media and enterprise markets, it looks like Google is out there on a huge wave all by itself. Again.
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