Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Google Wave: Many can ride it 

Released to a select group of developers on a sandbox build today, Google's new Wave tool resembles a wave inasmuch as many people not only will be able to ride a single swell at the same time, but they are the ones propelling it forward. Email is 40 years old, Lars Rasmussen, head of the Sydney-based development team told the audience. His team wanted to see what email would look like, he said, if email were invented today, and not 40 years since.

The 'client' resembles Gmail, with its highlighted new items. But it is clearly aimed at intercepting and holding onto some of the energy that is currently propelling social media forward at such a rapid pace. It allows easy addition of photographs via a drag-and-drop mechanism. And it has a neat, always-on, IM-type feature that lets you see what other people are typing in the wave at the same time they are typing it. This makes it even more dynamic than, say, Facebook chat, where you need to wait until typing is completed and the Enter key has been hit, before seeing what is being said.

You add more than one, or just one, individuals to the conversation (the 'wave') in the same way that you select people in some areas of Facebook: by clicking on their picture.

The reach of Wave is enhanced by its seamless integration with a blog that uses Blogger, which Google owns. Comments made on the blog front-end appear within the wave in real time. I can't see a lot of need for this element of Wave, but it's certainly a neat feature.

Wave's real benefit will be in the area of collaborative authoring.

The presenters highlighted the collaborative strengths of the application by demonstrating the 'playback' feature. You click on a button near the top of the screen and the currently-visible conversation (the 'wave') is played back so that you can see who did what and in what order.

Email commenting is also enabled, and with a nice twist that will see more people using Wave in future. You can place your cursor within another person's email and add text at this precise point. Your edits will then be immediately visible to other participants in the wave.

For document creation, Wave has obvious advantages because it allows many people to concurrently create a single document. Edits are flagged with highlighting but individual edits are not tagged with the author's name. This is a shortcoming, as for more complex, or longer, documents a large number of edits would be likely to occur. In Wave, there's only a general flag at the top of the document that tells a viewer who has edited it, and that's all.

Of course, Google is releasing the API, so other developers will be able to tweak the application to suit different types of usages. A version of Wave developed specifically for the purpose of multi-author documentation would be a real winner in today's service-oriented world.

Gmail's IM feature never really took off for me. I quickly migrated my interactions to Facebook, which is a better social network than Gmail could ever be. With the release of Wave, Facebook has a new competitor in the SM space. It will be interesting to see whether Facebook takes heed and again tweaks its interface to match its new rival's hand.

One area that will have Facebook really worried is in cross-language communication. Wave includes a real-time translation engine that lets you read text being typed in a foreign language, in your own language. This is an extraordinary development, and promises to revolutionise international communication.

You can hear the sighs of Chinese censors as they realise that, with this one facility, their firewall will no longer be able to withstand those incessant attempts by overseas residents to breach their precious barrier. If all communication can now be translated immediately, then all websites and all emails will have to be censored.

This will be particularly true if the new translation engine, dubbed 'Rosy', is better at translating than other engines currently available. The demonstration showed a conversation between English and French. Movement between languages that are not so close together morphologically might present other troubles.

If Google is now entering the language translation space, there will be many companies that will now be concerned about their market share.

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