Friday, 19 June 2009

Riding the Google Wave

Recently Google announced a new potential product called Wave that has had the e-experts all of a flutter. It's trumpted as the next generation of email. But is this just hype?

Email goes back a long way - before the internet, for example. As soon as people were using computers in real time, rather than punching cards and waiting for a result, it became obvious that this would be a great way to flip little messages between each other. It has become more sophisticated, but the model is very much traditional mail. (The name's a bit of a clue.)

If Wave has a model, it's more a conversation with friends than the post. Instead of a mail item being something fixed, it grows over time as responses are added. It's a living thing. You can add to and edit your original mail. As you get replies these build up, real time as a visible conversation. You can insert your reply part way through someone else's mail, to respond to particular points... and if you get confused by a complex conversation you can replay it so it builds, entry by entry. You can also do instant messaging within the mail if you are simultaneously online. And you can drop photos into the 'wave', producing a kind of active photo album.

One of the really exciting features is you can embed one of these 'waves' in a blog - and the whole thing is still interactive, so blog readers can interact with it too.

It looks remarkable. My only concern is its closed nature. The thing that makes email ubiquitous is that it is so basic. You can use it on anything. It all ties together. You can use it offline and just fire off your messages when you get a connection. Wave is different - it is inherently locked into Google's servers. You can't see your mail unless you are connected to the internet. Of course, in principle, you could have an offline copy, but this loses the whole interactive aspect. And there is no integration with history. I make a lot of use of my old emails, going back years - Wave is totally separate, it's inherently web based.

Will it catch on? I don't know. You will still have to use conventional email for communication with everyone who isn't using Wave - I guess a Wave user could have interface into his Wave client, but then you would be confused as to who you could and couldn't use the Wave features with.

As is so often with great new ideas, the biggest problem is not the benefits the idea delivers, it's how we get from here to there.

Here's a video demo of Wave - you might want to skip over the first bit. Or read more at wave.google.com

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