Google unveiled Google Wave, an online service that will provide a personal communications and collaboration hub for users and an extensible platform for developers. The service isn't available yet for testing. But Google Wave is an important new web platform, and it presents a credible threat to Microsoft's online efforts. Here's what you need to know about Google Wave.

Cutting Through the Hype
Google Wave is a Utopian attempt to rewrite the rules of email, instant messaging, document and image collaboration, and other tasks. It is an uber-service, the type of over-thinking we typically associate with Microsoft.

Google notes that today's email and IM solutions emulate communication models that date back to the 1960s. Google Wave, it says, is an attempt to rethink these activities. In Google's view, the web has already won the platform wars, which is convenient since Google primarily makes web-based services. (And Google Wave is being open-sourced because the company would like to see this technology adopted and extended as broadly as possible. Google says that it would like to see Wave servers become as ubiquitous as SMTP servers.)

How Wave Works
Individuals engage in "hosted communications" called waves. Waves can consist of any combination of conversations (such as email and IM) and documents (collaboration), providing rich interaction via text, photos, videos, maps, and more, according to Google. If you think of how an email thread and an IM conversation might be combined into a single entity, that's pretty much a wave. A playback capability lets participants "rewind" the wave at any point and review what's already happened. You can edit any part of the wave at any time, and it's always possible to see who did what.

Some Wave capabilities Google has highlighted so far include real-time collaboration, natural language tools (including context-sensitive spell checking), and Google Wave's extensibility model, which lets third-party developers add gadgets to the platform and embed waves in other sites.

Google Wave runs completely in the browser. It's based on HTML 5 and Google Web Toolkit, and its basic layout is similar to Microsoft Outlook’s. It features a multi-pane ("panel" to Google) interface with Navigation ("folders" like Inbox) and Contacts panes on the left, the selected folder in the middle (which Google calls the Search panel), and, on the right, the selected wave (the message, in an email application). Similarity to Outlook and other email applications was no doubt intentional, to help users make the transition to this new communications and collaboration model.

When you create a new wave, you typically start as you would with an email message, by typing a message (as contrasted with an IM where you select a contact or group of contacts first). You can then add users--or participants, as Wave calls them--using a pop-up window.

To users participating in a wave, the experience is very much like email. You hit Reply to write your response. This can happen offline, where the conversation is conducted like a long-distance chess match via email. But waves go beyond email by providing for live, interactive conversations--a la IM--and by providing more granular ways to converse.

With IM, you can typically see that the other participant is typing a message (because it will say something like "Rafael is typing...") but you don't see the message as its being typed. With Wave, you do.

In the future you’ll be able to drag and drop multimedia content, like pictures and video, into a wave. This feature isn't supported by the HTML 5 standard, so Google is working to get it added.

You’ll also be able to embed a wave in a traditional web site, to allow others to participate in a conversation from the web, adding their own comments and replies. (You can also just create waves from these sites and forego the Wave web app entirely if you want.)

What Wave Means
What really makes Google Wave fascinating is that it can both replace existing email, IM, and social networking solutions and work well with them; it's your choice. If you're a dedicated Facebook user, for example, you can expect any number of Wave plug-ins to appear for that service. But if you'd rather keep up with friends and family via Wave, or some other solution, you can use Wave to draw them in from Facebook and then move on. Similar models apply to different solutions, like email, IM, social networking, blogs, and collaboration sites like SharePoint: You can extend them with Wave. Or you can replace them with Wave.

For Microsoft, the implications are enormous. With Google Wave, it's clear that Google's decision to offer services piecemeal over time wasn't random but was in fact a strategy. It has created, in effect, a communications and collaboration engine for the cloud-computing wave.

I have a lot more to say about Google Wave and what it might offer IT pros, as well as its challenge to Microsoft, so if you're curious, see my Windows SuperSite article “First Look: Google Wave.”

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