Google Wave: Magical or Magician’s Trick?

May 29, 2009 at 8:59 am | Posted in collaboration, communication, email, Google | 1 Comment

Google announced Wave at its conference on Thursday, resulting in some bubbly coverage by the IT press. Check out the video from Google’s conference where they announced Wave (although allow 1 hr 20 min).

I watched the announcement and sometimes during effusive vendor presentations I feel like the guy at magic shows trying to get past what the magician wants you to focus on to reveal how the tricks are done.  That’s how I felt watching the video of the presentation where Google Wave was introduced. 

For example, the story accompanying Google Wave includes some magician’s hand-waving about eliminating e-mail and reinventing communication (“e-mail was invented 40 years ago before the internet … instead of point-to-point like e-mail, there’s a server-hosted conversation that participants connect to …”) as he slips a collaborative workspace into your pocket.  Boil this down and it’s a workspace instead of channel.  Workspaces have been around 40 years too and also pre-date the internet as bulletin boards, usenet, etc.

The spell checker (an applause line brought up at least 3 times in the presentation) is contextual which is neat, but I don’t think the technology was created by Wave.  While they didn’t mention its origins, I suspect it comes from the work done in Google Translate that implements statistical translation (one of two machine translation methods with the other being rule-based). By analyzing a truly enormous amount of text that is deemed to be accurately translated (one blog reported that Google used 200 billion words from United Nations documents as input), a learning system can develop inferences about how words are to be used and, given a new piece of text to translate, the highest probability of proper translation based upon past experience.

The presenter demos real-time editing with color highlighting and cursors for different editors.  When the presenter asked if we could picture students taking notes in a class together, I thought “Yes, I can picture it very easily because I’ve seen SubEthaEdit.” Real-time collaboration editors have been around for a while. What’s cool is not that you can do that at all (“Imagine …”), but that it’s working in a browser and has an open API.

Beyond the re-purposing and re-skinning there are some advances:

  • You can respond to parts of messages, which should be handy for those people that include several points in a message that you want to break apart. This also works in larger pieces of content so it acts as a larger content review process (comments are inline instead of in bullets to the side like Word)
  • Google made the decision to have text entry be synchronous (you can check an async box to turn that off) so people can see what’s being typed as its typed.
  • There’s a playback mechanism.  Wikis inherently have logging, so it seems an obvious but fun next step to play through the changes.

The audience seemed happy.  There were applause lines for dragging and dropping photos into a discussion, wiki-like changing of other people’s text and markup, drag and dropping a link to a collaboration space. 

To me the upside is not the new invention (or re-invention) of capabilities.  Think about Google Maps. The cool thing about Google Maps wasn’t that a programmer could overlay data on maps and scroll/zoom around it.  That had existed for quite some time.  What was cool is that the API made it so easy and embeddable that great applications (“Mapsups” as one client of mine called them) started showing up everywhere. 

Well, Wave was created by the Google Maps team. If they can do the same thing with collaboration spaces and synchronous collab that they did with the Maps API we could see much better use of web-based collaboration.   Too often collaboration tools have been modal rather than blending contextually into other apps.  Hopefully Wave can make some inroads here.  And that was, indeed, the point of the presentation which was to get developers excited about using the APIs to get the snowball rolling.  It would have been useful to get past the presdigitation and instead of pretending this is all new or the “e-mail killer” to point more to the APIs as the real value.


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