(or, “Why I’m excited about Google Wave, and why you should be too”)

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This post was written a long time ago, and my views have almost certainly evolved since then. Please keep that in mind while reading, commenting, or sharing.

Google Wave logoForgive me if I’m excited (especially to my really close friends, who have heard me geek out about this way too much). However, Google’s upcoming new development, called “Google Wave,” has (at least I think) the potential to totally revolutionize online communication.

I know, I know, I’m being a little dramatic. Revolutionize online communication? But I truly believe it. I think Google’s next development could totally change the way we communicate online, bringing it more in-line with the current developments in information technology.

More of my thoughts after the jump.

So what is it?

Wave is, to try to simplify an amazingly powerful tool, Google’s proposed successor to e-mail. Right away, that sounds ambitious. Succeed e-mail? What’s so wrong with e-mail as it is?

E-mail was first conceived in 1970. (Surprised?) The Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) which governs and standardizes the exchange of e-mails was published in 1982. Since then, the SMTP has hardly changed. An e-mail sent in the early 1970s would look very similar to one sent today.

E-mail, in turn, is based on a very mature mode of communication: the letter. E-mail is often (rightfully) credited for the slow death of the written letter, but the two media are remarkably similar. A letter and an e-mail message are both sent to one or many recipients, who in turn respond back. A “conversation” through these media follows a rather rigid format, simply due to the restrictions of the media. My responses to everything you say in your letter all have to be incorporated into the body of my next correspondence. If I want to respond “directly” to a single line or quote, I have to isolate it, copy it, and send my response, among the rest of my letter. We may have several different threads of conversation going on in one correspondence.

Now, obviously, the letter has worked as a blueprint for written communication. I’m not arguing that it hasn’t–clearly, the world has made it just fine with this periodical mode of communication. However, Google believes that today, with the technology we have available to us, we can find more effective, more efficient, and better ways to communicate.

Enter Google Wave. Wave is a new standard in development by Google. Imagine if e-mail–the 40-year-old protocol–evolved to take advantage of today’s technologies. Imagine if, instead of corresponding in rigid blocks, you could have discussions online in an organic, natural form. Imagine if you could not only publish to your blog, or Facebook, or Twitter, all from the same place, but also see and form replies there, too. Imagine if the Internet, which today is a collection of scattered and various applications, could be largely unified.

That’s Wave.

I’ve wasted enough space on this explanation already, and I’m going to go further into detail here in just a sec, but if you’re interested in seeing Google demonstrate what Wave can do, check the video out here. It’s an hour and a half long, but it’s also incredibly fascinating, all the way through.

That said, let me start dissecting just what I think is so darned cool about Wave (illustrated with some fun images I cooked up).

#1: Wave is open-source.

Open source boxI know there are people who recoil in horror and disgust when they hear those words. “Open-source? That’s just another way to say crappy!” I’ll save that discussion for another time, but let me explain why open-source protocols are a Good Idea™.

Let’s just look at an example. The Simple Mail Transfer Protocol that governs e-mail is open-source. This is good. It’s open-source and not controlled by any one corporate entity. This means, among other Good Things™, that your message (referred to as a “wave”) isn’t treated any differently from any other messages because of its origin, and any like-minded person could examine the code and verify this. Also, it means that anybody with a little know-how can create their own mail client, so nobody can claim to “own” the e-mail medium (any more than anyone can “own” the medium of snail mail).

Same with Wave. The Wave code will be open-source, so that people can examine it and replicate it if they desire. Although Google is developing it, it’s not (as far as I know) going to be owned by Google. The Wave standard will be open to everybody.

Open-source, however, is a good thing for another reason, one that’s not applicable to e-mail simply because e-mail’s old. That reason is:

#2: Wave is extensible.

Extended WaveYou know how you can download an extension for Firefox to make it do almost anything? Imagine if you could do the same with e-mail. Not just your e-mail client, but the e-mail itself, so that anybody who read your e-mail benefited from the extension. See, people can write extensions for Firefox because Firefox is open-source. Likewise with Wave.

What’s an extension for Wave? Imagine being able to type whatever you wanted in a message and have it instantly translated into another language. You don’t have to go to a translation page–simply use the translating extension, and it automatically translates what you say. Or maybe as-you-type spellcheck, as demonstrated in the developer preview. Those are just two samples. Since anyone can look at Google Wave’s source to figure out how it works, anyone can write extensions to further harness its power. The possibilities are nigh-upon endless.

#3: Wave plays well with media.

Wave and media

These days, trying to send pictures to your friends via e-mail sucks, especially if you have more than, say, four files you want to send. You have to browse through your documents, find what you want, and attach them one-by-one (usually). You can probably only attach a half-dozen (at most) full-sized photographs per e-mail, and when your friend receives them, he or she has to download them one at a time.

With Wave, you can drag and drop photos into your message, and they’re shared instantly. Wave also has some basic photo gallery functions, so if you want to view the images inside a wave, it’s just a click, and they’re displayed right there. It’s even cake to download the pictures–Wave has a “download all photos” function.

Want more? A simple extension makes it a cinch to not only link to videos, but embed them inside the wave. Forget the days of “Hey, check out this video!” You can put the videos you want to share inside the message itself (as, of course, you can also do with photos).

As a side effect, this will make Rickrolling much more difficult. Take that as you will.

#4: Wave can unify the Web.

Online Unity

I love Twitter. I have a great time posting those sub-140-character observations and wry comments to my Twitter feed. It’s fun, it’s easy.

But I also have a Facebook account, and with that, I can post status updates, which are so similar to Tweets that I have, in the past, described Twitter as essentially “a site for Facebook status messages.” There’s a bit of redundancy here–in fact, a whole lot.

Need to tell me something? You can write on my Facebook wall, send me a private message through Facebook (or a discussion forum), or send me an e-mail. If I want to share a piece of writing with many people, I can write a note on Facebook, publish the piece on this blog, go over to Elowel and post it, or dust off my Blogger blog and publish it there. Of course, if you have some constructive criticism or a comment on that piece, you can write your comment, but it’s only visible to people on that same site. Let’s hope I don’t make a typo, or else I could get reminded of it not once, not twice, but three times, all by people who thought they were the only ones to see the mistake.

Our personas online are scattered. Granted, there have been attempts to unify certain parts of the Web–you can download an application for Facebook that reposts your Tweets as status messages, for instance. It’s a good step, but it doesn’t address the fundamental problem: there are redundant copies everywhere.

This is where Wave comes in. There is only one copy of a wave, ever, and that copy can be published (with the aid of extensions) across the entire Internet. Max on Elowel might comment in order to point out a plot hole in my short story, and Nick on Facebook will see that reply. If I decide to fix a typo in the piece, all I have to do is edit one version, and the changes are reflected across the Web.

Now, this isn’t to say that you’ll only have one account for everything. You’ll still need to input your Twitter username and password to tell the world what kind of cereal you’re eating. But you can simultaneously post that one message to Twitter and Facebook, and keep redundancy at a minimum.

This is, of course, all optional. You can embed your waves anywhere you want (that is, anywhere the site developers have allowed it), or keep it as private as you desire. The great thing here is the flexibility.

#5: Wave is fast.

Speedy WaveNow, nobody would suggest that e-mail is slow. Heck, its speed and convenience are exactly why the written letter is dying. But as fast as an e-mail is, it’s not instant.

Wave, frankly, is. Edits made to a wave are visible instantly to anyone participating in it. In fact, anyone involved in a wave can watch other people type their responses. That’s due to how Wave is written.

Instead of basing message transmission on the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol that governs e-mail, Wave sends messages instantly… by using an instant message protocol. Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), the standard behind practically all instant messengers, is at the heart of Wave, allowing Wave users not only to make lightning-fast changes to a wave, but essentially use a wave as an IM conversation. Remember that redundancy I was talking about above? Why should IM’s be separate from e-mail, or (to pull Facebook back in here) Facebook chat? It’s all just communication.

#6: Wave simplifies communication.

Wave ConversationAs universal as the letter is, the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t represent an actual conversation. If we spoke like we wrote letters (and e-mails), conversation would be rigid. I’d say something (probably very lengthy), then wait patiently as you thought of what to say, and then said it back to me. It would be a game of Pong, only you could hold the ball for as long as it took you to plan your stroke. And that’s only with two people. The more people involved in a letter-type “discussion,” the less it actually resembles any form of conversation.

A real conversation is fast. It’s also free of dead space–as you’re speaking your mind, your friend is already thinking of her response. This can’t be done through e-mail, nor can it be done through today’s instant messaging (which still uses the letter model, only faster). It can be done through Wave, which allows your conversation partners to see what you’re saying as you say it, allowing for naturally-flowing discussion.

Of course, there is a time and a place for the formal structure of the letter. Applying for a job, for instance, calls for reflection and the careful formality of a letter. Wave can do that too–it’s easy enough to just click the “Draft” checkbox and not share your composition until it’s complete.

Replying to one line in an e-mail is similarly unnatural. If your friend asks three questions in an e-mail, the conventional way to respond is quote those three lines separately in your response, composing your replies beneath. If he has his own responses to your replies, he quotes them, and so on. Save for your first response, where you quoted the questions of interest, there’s really no link to the original questions, obfuscating the conversation.

If your friend asked you those questions in a wave, all you’d have to do is highlight a sentence (or the last word) and click a button, and you could write your own inline reply that would sit below that specific line. The original message would be unchanged, but instead of muddling conversation with multiple replies in one message, your replies would be right next to the relevant part of the discussion. Natural, easy.

The fact of the matter is, if I had to imagine a way to facilitate organic conversations online, I honestly couldn’t think of anything better than the Wave model.

#7: Wave is collaborative.

Collaborative Wave

Whoa. What?

Indeed. Waves can be edited by any participant, even as they’re being composed. This is how the spell-check and translation extensions, mentioned above, work. The extensions exist as robot participants in a wave, who actively edit as you type.

Now, I can understand if this is a little unnerving to you. You don’t want random people messing with your stuff! But random people aren’t going to be able to edit your waves–only the other participants.

But wait, how does this work with public sites like Facebook? Can anybody edit your wave there? Have no fear, that’s hardly the case. To publish to Facebook, you simply include a Facebook robot in your wave’s participants, and it automatically publishes the wave. Your friends on Facebook aren’t participants in the wave, so they can’t edit what you’ve written (as far as I know). They can respond, but they can’t change it.

Additionally, all changes to a wave are logged, and can be played back from the beginning. So if your friend keeps messing with the party invitations you send out, the other guests will see a message saying “Nick edited this wave at 12:00 am” (or something to that extent), and they can easily view the original wave.

So, if your fears are assuaged, let me explain why collaboration is another Good Thing™.

Let’s imagine it’s May, and I’m still in high school. Looking ahead to the summer, I want to know when all my friends leave for their respective college adventures–and, for kicks, where they’re going (since I have a terrible memory). I could give them all slips of paper to fill out and hand back to me, but when I got them all back, if I wanted the results to be convenient at all to read, I’d have to recompile everyone’s responses in a new document. (Either that or deal with a giant wad of paper slips that I have to thumb through every time I want to check on something.) An easier way would be to pass around a sheet that anyone could edit and have everyone add their information as they get it. Then, once it came back to me, I would have everyone’s information in one concise place.

Okay, it’s summertime now. If I wanted to find out the same information, I could send out a mass e-mail and compile the results. But that gets sloppier and more labor-intensive the more people I include–it’s exactly like the little slips of paper in the scenario above. The alternative, akin to passing around one sheet of paper to everyone, is (of course) a wave. Anyone could edit it, adding their information into one concise document. There aren’t a million little e-mails to keep track of, since everything is clear and simple in the wave.

That’s only one example. Imagine how easy it would be to send out invitations to an event and see who was coming, all in the same document, updated by the guests as they RSVP’d. Think of how much simpler it would be to compose a group paper for a class.

This is equally beneficial in the workplace, as well. For instance, several different task forces could work on parts of one design document simultaneously, and merge it all together at the end. Notes from a meeting could be transcribed by someone in attendance and read instantly by employees at their desks, who could also share their questions instantly.

Again, these are only examples. The true strength of Wave is how gosh-darn flexible it is, and the collaboration possible through Wave only makes it more powerful a tool.

#8: Wave is flexible.

Flexible WaveE-mail is static. There is, as far as my crystal ball is showing me, nothing more in the tubes for that medium. You can send rich-text messages complete with embedded images, attach files, and that’s it. Forty years of development have brought it about as far as it can go.

Wave, in contrast, is rife with new possibilities. There are a million new ways to communicate, exchange ideas, and work together through the framework provided by Wave. Additionally, it’s designed to be extensible. There’s honestly no limit to how we communicate.

I’ve spent a lot of this post championing the features that make Wave a “better” e-mail. But you know what? Nobody’s making you use any of these. If you want to exchange a traditional, letter-style correspondence, it’s still possible in Wave. If you don’t want to publish to Facebook or your blog, you never have to. If you don’t want people seeing what you type until you’re finished, you can keep your compositions marked as drafts until you’re done. Wave offers a million and one new options, in order to improve our online communication. But they’re exactly that–options–and if you don’t want to use them, you won’t have to.

Which brings us to the question: Why change? If e-mail is perfectly functional as is, why bother with this newfangled Wave business?

There was a time when there was no Internet. If I wanted to write my friend on the other side of the country, I put my pen to paper and sent her a letter. Information was readily available at local libraries, or public offices. If I wanted to copy a picture to give you, I went to the developer with the negative.

The world without the Internet was perfectly functional. Humans survived tens of thousands of years without the ability to instantly access information. Yet despite that, the invention of the Internet has drastically changed society across the globe, largely (I would say) for the better. The Internet, of course, was initially met with skepticism and a little frustration, as people used to the traditional ways of doing things had to learn a new, foreign technology. But once they had, they realized what a powerful–and nigh-limitless–new technology it was.

There will always be a quantum of resistance to changes, and moreso the bigger the change it is. It’s perfectly valid to be skeptical of change and to question it. However, there is a difference between skepticism and obstinateness. Ask questions, but be prepared for answers that aren’t what you expected. Doubt, but only until your doubts are adequately addressed. Most importantly, don’t presume to know everything about something new until you’ve tried it. You may find it’s much more than you had imagined.

When I first heard about Wave, I felt like I was watching something out of a science-fiction film. This new technology is light-years ahead of what we’re all used to using. But it’s real. Communication and collaboration will be taken to new heights with Wave, in ways we can’t even imagine now.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what the future will bring.

Google Wave is scheduled for release later this year.

Background of header image is Light Honeycomb by Federica Pelzel, from Subtle Patterns. Original licensed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Header image is CC BY-SA 4.0.

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