Google has just opened up to a limited audience its very interesting communications experiment, Wave. We got the chance to evaluate it and were impressed by what we saw. It's a more contemporary take on communications, but will knock many email users off balance.
Even Wave's own software engineering manager, Lars Rasmussen, told us: "It takes a little getting to... We're still learning how to use it." Imagine how everyone else will feel.
If you want to try Wave, you'll have to wait. Google is making access to the service available to some developers and press types, but it will not become fully available until "later this year", according to Google. The version we tested was very raw, as Wave is still in development. Many features were not implemented and the system threw up a few errors. But the framework and philosophy is clear to see, and that's what this evaluation is based on.
Wave is real-time email. When you're writing a reply to a message (or 'wave') that you receive in the system, the recipient can see what you are typing as you type it. It will come as a relief to most that the real-time feature can be disabled if you click on the 'draft' button while writing, although this wasn't working in our trial. But real-time visibility is the default.
You can put your replies anywhere in the message. You can also do this in standard email, but, in Wave, your comments are easy to pick out since the app bounds reply text in coloured boxes with authors' pictures embedded in them. Those of us who prefer to reply to email messages at the end (or the beginning) and not piecemeal can just reply as usual. But when you want to write a surgical point-by-point reply to a message, Wave makes it easy.
You can drop pictures straight into Wave messages (a clever trick in a browser-based app, made possible by Google Gears), and smart assistants will let you convert addresses to maps, automatically fix spelling errors, and expand contact names.
But it's the reply-anywhere feature combined with the real-time function that's most interesting. It makes Wave the first useful blend of email and instant messaging that we've seen. Unlike Google's previous attempt to meld the two communications modes into one app (Gmail has Google Talk in its sidebar), this one really works. An asynchronous email conversation between two people can stay that way, or become real-time when both parties are online, and the dialogue stays in place in the email for later viewing. Switching between the email and IM mode is seamless. In fact, the concept of the two different modes vanishes in Wave.
Wave's message handling really shines when a conversation is between more than two people. Using Wave and its specific, colour-coded replies, a group of people can have an actual discussion in email in real-time if wanted, without getting bogged down in long multi-message discussions -- or, worse, in threads that end up forking so that different people are discussing different things.
The Wave inbox pane shows you when there are new messages in your threads by putting the subject lines in bold, and, when somebody is actively typing in a wave, you can see the text come in live, in the two-line preview every message gets. That's really cool, although it can be overwhelming.
Speaking of being overwhelmed, the first time we had two people replying to us in an individual message at the same time, in different places in it, our heads almost exploded. It's a lot of raw information coming it at once, and it's very different from the old email or IM experience.
A new communications architecture
Much of what Wave does is made possible by the fact that Wave messages don't live primarily in the desktop Wave client (which is actually a rich browser-based app), as the traditional design of email dictates, but rather on the Wave server. Messages aren't just dropped off at your Wave client -- persistent links to messages on the servers come with them. When you edit a wave with the Wave application on your computer, it's immediately reflected back to the Wave server, and from there out to other users who are viewing that wave in their apps, immediately.
Wave servers synchronise with each other as needed. In fairness, this is not radically different from how Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange work, but Wave has no legacy support for old email architectures whatsoever, and isn't bogged down by the old methods -- like the practice of delivering messages to users and then severing the links to those messages.
Other benefits you get include the capability to add new recipients to a wave at any time, and for Wave to know, when that happens, what each user has read and what they haven't. Users' views into Wave will highlight what's new to them when they open a message.
And, taking a page from Twitter Search, Wave's search function will be real-time (it wasn't when we tried it). If you are searching for a word or phrase in your inbox of waves, and someone updates a message thread with your search target, that message will pop up in your results the moment they type in the change. You can save searches in the navigation bar -- a useful feature.
All together? Not yet
At the moment, the only people Wave users can communicate with are other Wave users. Wave addresses look like email addresses, but there's no gateway between Internet email and Wave, so messages sent from standard email clients to Wave will bounce. This is a serious limitation, and one Google hopes developers will rectify by writing gateways between Wave and standard email servers, not to mention IM services and other social and workflow systems like Facebook, Bugzilla and so on. A Twitter interface is already being shown.
But, as Rasmussen told us, Wave is currently spam-free since it's not linked into the global email system. He doesn't want to open up Wave to standard email until he can ensure that this system won't be overrun, too.
In fact, the reason Wave is being released in the way it is at the moment -- as an early developer-only experience -- is to encourage programmers to write extensions to it. The email gateway is particularly critical, and Google may develop it itself. Without it, Wave is yet another new communications medium that will have a hard time getting off the ground, since it duplicates many capabilities people are already accustomed to. Wave is technically a radical departure from email, but, for the end user, it will still be used for many of the same things email is.
Google's Wave team hasn't yet done much integration with other Google developers' projects, although Wave was introduced to the company through a detailed video demo. As Rasmussen told us: "To say we're 'working with' other Google groups would be a stretch." Obvious integrations we're waiting for include Gmail, Google Docs and Google Voice.
It's about time
The merger of email, IM and collaborative editing is overdue. Aside from the inertia of technology, there's no reason why we should need different applications -- an email client (or site), an instant-messaging tool and a collaborative editor -- for variations on the theme of textual communication. Google deserves plenty of credit for kicking off this experiment.
When Wave comes out, try it immediately. It really is an eye-opener.