October 01, 2009

Google Wave Hits Shore. Flash Flood Warning In Effect.

As you already know, Google released a waterfall of 100,000 invites to the Google Wave preview over the last day or so, giving bleeding-edge early adopter and information addicts a new playground to exchange conversations in real time. After months of hibernation and anticipation, Wave's arrival has everyone's tongues wagging, as we all get an early look into Google's plans to redefine messaging, delivering a real-time platform that includes rich media and extensibility through gadgets.

Since Wave's introduction earlier this year, I have seen a number of differing ways the product has been described. From a new development platform to a suite for business collaboration or an (insert popular social service name here) killer, the guesses have ranged far and wide. Interestingly, however, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Lars Rasmussen defined Wave as "a modern version of e-mail", adding that e-mail is "an old-fashioned technology". So it makes the most sense, at this point, to look at the Google Wave preview as a potential replacement or enhancement to today's e-mail systems, notably GMail.

Having received an invite to Google Wave via Denton Gentry, a Google employee who is also a frequent commenter here on this blog, I jumped into the Wave fray late last night, and found the system to be extremely stable and much faster than anticipated. For a "preview" release, Wave is very good, especially considering the complexity that is involved.

My first "wave" seemed simple enough.

Google Wave takes on traditional e-mail systems and incorporates chat-like or instant messaging technology all in one. Instead of a typical "I send you a message, you receive it and you reply" type of exchange, Wave encapsulates conversations between people and shows real-time responses in line, more like threaded comments than individual messages. If you and I are having a conversation in Wave, you see me type out my responses, typos and all, as I pound out a reply. To respond to my note, just click below the last message and extend the thread.

Almost immediately, my Wave filled up with conversation.

(Click for full-size image)

As this specific "wave" (lower case) is being updated, new waves can pop into our in boxes from anyone. Like traditional e-mail, if anybody has your address, you can be copied on a note. But Wave enables anyone to add contacts from their address book to any thread at any time. So while you may initiate one conversation, you could be dragged into another one that already has 60 entries. The good news is that Wave has a "Playback" button which enables you to watch the conversation occur, in the order it was entered, but the bad news is if you are in enough active threads, the act of watching each one can be time consuming.

Like most early discussions around new services, the vast majority of conversations are actually about the service. Just like FriendFeed-related items get liked more item on FriendFeed, and Twitter-related tweets get retweeted, last night's Wave swarm was full of conversations all about Wave. Does it work? Where are the gadgets? Who doesn't have invites, but needs them?

One active wave shows participants and nested comments.

Because of the real-time nature of Wave, I quickly found that if I engaged in one wave (lower case) and gained replies in another, the other contact might feel that I had "left" that thread. Since I can't yet be in two places at once, the real-time aspect was more like when you have multiple chat windows open in Google Chat or Facebook Chat than if you had more than one e-mail message. So staying on top of all active waves can be a tremendous challenge - one that practically promises to keep you embedded in the application until every single message is muted and all your contacts go do something else (which may never happen).

The instantaneous nature of Wave immediately makes other assumed "fast" programs seem slow. For example, adding comments to FriendFeed for a live conversation now seems slow, as it requires the entire message to be completed before being posted. In comparison, in Wave, I see you type it immediately, and can actually formulate a response as you're writing.

Google Wave, as should be no surprise, is integrated with Search. You can insert videos discovered on YouTube and photos from Picasa or other services into Wave, and make them part of any conversations. You can play back YouTube videos below text, or post new videos to those you're talking to.

But yes, as you are watching a video, more waves are crashing into your in box. While you may not get the feeling that you have hundreds of unread messages, as you do with traditional e-mail, every single wave conversation shows how many new entries have been made since you last viewed the thread. Every single wave can have dozens of new entries, depending on the number of contacts and conversation that is there.

A typical Wave "In Box" after a night's activity.

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Meanwhile, until Google Wave is integrated into GMail or other Google services, checking your Wave becomes yet another place to go so you're not missing conversations directed your way. So for somebody like me, who has a personal e-mail address, a work e-mail address, a GMail address, and e-mail addresses for company clients, Wave is yet another inbox and place to go to check in. And the new address (louisgray@googlewave.com) is another place for people to send me things.

I can see how small teams may use Wave for real-time collaboration. Its nature offers an opportunity to further eliminate distance and improve information exchanges. The ability to add people on the fly to conversations is very interesting, as is the ability to ping somebody and have a 1-1 conversation in the middle of any wave, or in a dedicated side exchange. I expect the company is set to debut more widgets to further extend the platform, both bringing content into Wave and content out from Wave. For example, last night, Jesse Stay and I had an exchange where he added a Twitter gadget, but thanks to something I would consider a security bug, I was able to send a tweet on his behalf because I was engaged in the thread. (See the tweet I made here)

Wave, like many Google products, also supports keyboard shortcuts to aid in navigation. I hopefully hit J to go down and K to go back (like I do constantly in Google Reader), but found it is the space bar that you hit to go step by step. Wave is an extremely interesting platform, and I would bet that after the initial surge of curiosity, normal conversations and information exchange will eventually take over, so this initial spike may be an exception rather than the new rule. But if you're diving into this new technology, expect do be exerting a lot of energy to stay on top of it, because messaging just got accelerated.

Also see: Scobleizer: Google Wave Crashes on Beach of Overhype