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What is Google Wave, anyway?

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Posted May 18 2010 04:56 AM

Google Wave was met with considerable fanfare when it launched in a limited preview last fall. It was poised to revolutionize email, save journalism, and alter the fabric of online communication -- or so some of us wanted to believe.

The reality is that Wave hasn't matched up with those unrealistic expectations. Email is still dominant. Journalism's salvation has yet to be found. Communication remains the same.

Here's the interesting bit, though: After talking to Andrés Ferraté, author of "Google Wave: Up and Running," it's clear to me that Wave was mischaracterized. As you'll see in the following Q&A, Ferrate believes we've only scratched the surface of Wave's real utility.

Is Google Wave a collaboration tool? An email alternative? A protocol? Something else?

Interview conducted in Google WaveAndrés Ferraté: Google Wave is a real-time communication and collaboration tool that mashes up a bunch of web technologies, including email, instant messaging, wikis, online documents, forums, gadgets, and everything in-between.

Wave was conceived as a replacement for email -- the two brothers that came up with the idea for Google Wave thought about what "email might look like" if it was invented in the present day -- although at present it currently plays a complementary role with email.

If you look at Google Wave as an uber-platform of sorts, it represents a new model for communication and collaboration that is comprised of three interdependent layers that work in tandem to provide various types of access and functionality with Google Wave.

The Product Layer is represented by the Google Wave client, the app that most people think of when Google Wave is mentioned. This is an HTML5 app that runs in the browser and provides a whole bunch of real-time functionality and rich goodies, including real-time messaging, access to extensions (such as gadgets and robots), attachments, and various other tools.

The Platform Layer is represented by the Google Wave APIs. These open APIs provide developers with access to a slew of stuff, including the ability to produce robots and gadgets, which serve to augment the conversation among participants in a wave.

The Protocol Layer is represented by the Google Wave Protocol, an open source protocol that is used to enable the real-time communication and collaboration across waves. I won't get too much into the technical nature of the protocol, but it essentially uses an innovative model for concurrent exchange of data via XML.

What will Wave become?

Andrés Ferraté: There are a few different answers to that question. There are also different time horizons in terms of how Google Wave will evolve.

Right now Google Wave is in a limited public preview, and I think the Google Wave team is using this early release to refine some of the major elements of the platform.

The Google Wave client continues to improve, and additional functionality will be added as users provide feedback. I don't think we'll see this layer change too much in terms of look and feel, but there will be some substantial optimization for performance and speed.

The APIs are evolving rather quickly, and we've already seen a thriving developer community emerge around this part of the platform. Creative developers are using the APIs to bridge Google Wave with other services, including email. The Dr. Ray extension showcases this movement quite well.

The Google Wave Federation Protocol is open source, and the long-term vision for this protocol is that it will enable federated access among various "wave providers" with different user bases. We're already seeing that companies like Novell have adopted the Google Wave Federation Protocol for their own products. As companies and organizations adopt this protocol, Google Wave will become more prominent as an alternative to email. I see an ecosystem emerging, whereby there's a broad range of functionality and features among the service providers.

Are there certain extensions that make Wave more useful?

Andrés Ferraté: There are several places to find extensions. One of them is the Extensions list found in your Wave inbox, which lists a bunch of useful gadgets and robots that can be installed via "extension installers" (essentially, one-click installation). Click on Extensions in the navigation pane at the top left of the Google Wave client and choose to see Featured extensions or All extensions.

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If you're more technical, you can also check out the Wave Samples Gallery. The Samples Gallery is primarily a developer resource, so you may need to add these extensions manually.

As for specific extensions, I've found the Yes/No/Maybe gadget to be quite valuable for getting consensus from participants, and the Google Maps gadget is also quite useful. There's a gadget called Buddy as a Service that uses Yahoo's YQL to retrieve a whole bunch of information, including news and weather. Forum Botty, a robot that converts a wave into a forum -- with auto-tagging, daily digests, etc. -- has some great potential.

The new Wave robots developed with the latest version of the Google Wave Robots API are also worth checking out. They're representative of how Google Wave can be extended.

On the development side, what's it like to use Wave?

Andrés Ferraté: The platform offers something for just about every developer, and that's one of the really cool aspects of it. You can design and develop extensions that utilize server-side code (robots), Javascript on the client side (gadgets), or a combination thereof. The Google Wave APIs have been available since day one, and that has led to some good opportunities for developers to contribute to the evolution of the platform.

The open nature of the APIs also means they are easy to work with and easy to implement. Robots run on App Engine, and that lets developers use both the cloud and the broad support App Engine offers for Python and Java apps. Wave gadgets are very similar to the Google gadgets that run on iGoogle. Anyone with experience developing Google gadgets can get cracking pretty easily with Wave gadgets.

With regard to the Wave protocol itself, it is one of the first implementations of its kind for a mass user base. The Google Wave Federation Protocol is based on XMPP and it uses a concept known as operational transformation. In essence, the protocol allows multiple users to see live changes to a wave across multiple clients in real time.

When will third-party sites begin using Google Wave?

Andrés Ferraté: We've started to see integration with other sites/parties via two recent developments:

1) A new version of the Robots API gives developers more flexibility to integrate with other services and content. This includes a "proxying-for" mechanism that allows information exchange with users who are not necessarily active participants in a wave.

2) Embedding of public waves that can be viewed by anyone, even if they don't have a Google Wave account (though the waves are then read-only for those viewers).

The Wave Embed API was revamped quite recently, so the notion of embedding waves into other sites is getting some much-deserved attention. For example, check out the Google Web Element, which makes it simple to embed a wave into a website.

I think we'll see widespread integration once Google Wave moves out of preview mode and anyone can sign up. The adoption of the Google Wave Federation Protocol by other parties will also contribute to the expansion of Google Wave, and also to the development of additional elements that encourage third-party integration and use.

Is Google Buzz related to Wave?

Andrés Ferraté: Buzz and Wave share some characteristics -- real-time communication and updates, media sharing, and integration with other services -- so they're related in that way. But I don't think Buzz is a subset of Wave or vice versa.

The Wave client and Buzz do have some overlap in terms of functionality, but they are distinct products with different objectives. Buzz is lightweight, and it's more about social media sharing and content curation. Wave is more sophisticated and versatile, and it covers a wide range of collaboration and communication needs. Both allow you to communicate with others, but the context is quite different. Another way of looking at it is in terms of what is generated: Buzz generates an activity/information stream, whereas Wave generates a rich multimedia online document. I also think a "buzz" is more ephemeral, something more like a tweet than a wave.

Both Buzz and Wave have APIs, but Wave is a broad, multi-faceted platform that can be extended significantly. Over the long term I think we'll see a bit more convergence between the two, but this will be complementary, perhaps with more seamless integration of information generated by users in either product.

This interview was condensed and edited. It was also conducted through Google Wave.


Google Wave: Up and Running

Learn more about this topic from Google Wave: Up and Running.

Catch Google Wave, the revolutionary Internet protocol and web service that lets you communicate and collaborate in realtime. With this book, you'll understand how Google Wave integrates email, instant messaging (IM), wiki, and social networking functionality into a powerful and extensible platform. You'll also learn how to use its features, customize its functions, and build sophisticated extensions with Google Wave's open APIs and network protocol.

See what you'll learn

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