Catch the Wave

Outdated is a word coined by manufacturers to convince people the shiny new products they purchased six months ago and which work perfectly are now useless. However, once in a while, a new product comes along that really does make the current version practically obsolete. Google Wave could be just such an application.

Google Wave is difficult program to describe, but is essentially a cutting edge communication application that’s a combination of email, instant messaging and collaborative editing. Because Google Wave is so different than anything before it, the best way to learn about it is to watch the long video here. The next best way is to finish reading this article.

New Wave Rocks

Google Wave is the name of the latest application developed by Google. Within it you create documents called, appropriately enough, Waves. Waves are XML-based document objects similar to an email thread, but so much more. Instead of writing and sending an email, you create a Wave and then share it with others.

Google Wave was created because email as we know it was developed long before the Internet, the World Wide Web, rich content and multimedia. Traditional email is like putting horseshoes on a Ferrari – painful.

Creature Features
Here are the main features of Google Wave that make it light-years beyond regular email:

  • when you type a message, other users see your keystrokes in real-time, character by character; no more “Amy is typing…” messages to wait through, although you can turn off this feature if you wish
  • instant and intelligent spellcheck: for example, “It’s bean so long” is automatically corrected to “It’s been so long”; “icland is an icland” is automatically changed to “Iceland is an island”; these changes are either instantly made, or suggestions are automatically presented in a drop-down list below the word in question
  • you can view the history of a message thread using a “playback” feature – this allows you to step through each response as it was received, one message at a time, so you can see who wrote what and when they wrote it
  • multiple users can update the original message – all users will see each other’s changes in real time as they are typed, in other words, real-time live document colloboration
  • a built-in search function – you can search sites, images, videos, and then with one click instantly add the link or photo to your message
  • you can easily respond to just a portion of a section in the message, instead of the entire message; new threads are automatically created
  • you can easily drag photos onto your message, and rename them, again in real time
  • automatic recognition of URLs: if you enter google.com, it is instantly converted to a hyperlink
  • you can easily embed videos

Extending a Hand

You can also extend Google Wave by creating extensions for other applications and websites. For example, you can:

  • add a Wave to to a blog – updates to the Wave instantly appear in the blog, and vice versa, in real time
  • add Twitter to a Wave – the Twitter thread appears in Wave – updates to one appear in the other
  • embed various apps, such as a chess game
  • create your own “branded” Wave; for example the ABC Company could create a Wave that appears as an ABC Wave, with all of the Google Wave’s functionality
  • add a “response” gadget – a table with multiple columns: each column represents a response to a question, for example: Do you like cheese? – Yes | No | Maybe; when you respond, your ID appears under the column of that response; to change your response, you simply click another column and your ID instantly moves to that column
  • insert a map into a Wave – if one reader zooms in or out, or annotates the map with markup tools, the other users will instantly see the new view or the changes
  • add a form: for example, multiple users can collaborate in real time on the construction of a poll; you can be writing the questions while another user writes the potential responses; you can then can instantly send out the poll to all the recipients, and the poll results are updated live in real-time

To Infinity and Beyond…

These features are indeed incredible. But perhaps the most outstanding feature of all is the one demonstrated near the end of the video: real time translation to another language. Using a special translation add-on, you can type in one language and an instant, real-time, word by word translation appears in another language.

When new technology like this comes along, I’m always reminded of two of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Three Laws”:

  • The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

On the first law: Only by hiring the best and brightest engineers could Google create such an application. But technical intelligence only gets you so far; you have to be a dreamer, a doubter and a rebel. You must believe in the impossible to do the possible.

On the second law: Google Wave certainly does appear “magical”. But we have to be careful not to be overwhelmed by the magic. Just because a new product can be used in new and different ways does not necessarily make it more “usable”. I’m sure many of us could personally could benefit from such a tool, but we are hyper-combinations of communicators and engineers. Many people might balk at such a complex application. Just because something may be “better” doesn’t mean people will use it. History is filled with “better” products that failed for other reasons: price, usability, inability of people to change – the Apple Newton and WebTV are but two examples; you can view more here.

The Wave is scheduled to be released either late 2009 or early 2010. It will be fascinating to see if it succeeds, because it could impact our profession. Think about it: XML-based; collaborative editing; ability to track changes; instant communication – are these not the ideals of technical communication? If the Wave takes off, it could inspire a whole new generation of people to become technical communicators.

And what a Wave that would be…

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