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Google's Wave: 'Rethinking How People Work'

SAN FRANCISCO -- Like a slow-moving tsunami, the impact of Google's Wave announcement here Wednesday might not be felt for some time, but it has the potential to disrupt the traditional Web communications landscape.

Google's co-founder and president Sergey Brin is bullish on the potential of the communication/collaboration system unveiled here at the company's Google I/O conference. Wave is a browser-based, online communications environment that combines features of e-mail, instant messaging and collaboration software. It's currently in a limited private beta for developers.

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is encouraging developers to test and develop enhancements for Wave that will offer hooks that allow it to be embedded in blogs and social networks. Wave, based on an open source model, was developed using Google's Web Toolkit. More details were posted in a Google blog by co-creator Lars Rasmussen.

"There aren't many companies that can completely rethink how their products should work. I'm very excited," said Brin.

The Google Wave team
(L to R): Google's Vic Gundotra, Lars and Jens Rasmussen. Click on the graphic for a larger view. Source: David Needle

In a press conference following the rollout, Wave's developers and Brin and vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra, fielded questions on how the system was created as well as technical (e.g. it will offer offline access from the browser) and competitive issues. On the latter point, Gundotra was asked how Wave stacked up versus systems like Microsoft's Sharepoint.

"This thing has greater breadth because of its real-time nature and openness, unlike Sharepoint, and there's a federation model and the entire stack is built in the Web," he said.

However, Gundotra and others repeatedly emphasized Wave is at an early, pre-release stage and no decisions have been made about issues like marketing, distribution or positioning. While many of Wave's features can legitimately be described as cool, widespread adoption depends on convincing users to move away from e-mail and other traditional communication platforms.

"When you talk about the younger generation, that's what gives a system like Wave hope," Greg Sterling, analyst with Search Engine Land, told InternetNews.com. "They're already using social networks as a replacement for e-mail and when you look at what's happening with Twitter, the trend is toward the kind of real-time communications systems like Wave offers."

In some ways, Wave is more real-time, or instant, than instant messaging. You can have multiple instant message sessions from within Wave and see what the sender is typing before they're finished. Ironically, the early text-based Unix Talk of decades ago worked this way, noted Wave's Lars Rasmussen. "It's more interactive, you're not waiting," he said.

How Wave came to be

Wave's development path, if not unique to Google, certainly highlights the flexible outlook of its top management.

When Rasmussen and his brother Jens pitched the idea to Brin and co-founder Larry Page, they didn't provide much detail. "The use case? There was nothing," laughed Brin. "They just said they were going to build this cool thing that will change communication."

The Rasumussens had leverage, though: a track record following the successful launch of an earlier creation that became Google Maps.

"When Google Maps came out, it was on the edge of browser capability, with the ability to drag maps around," recalled Brin. "What we're seeing in Wave today is on the edge of browser capability, they've pushed the limits. I think you'll see a level of interaction you haven't seen previously in the browser."

Lars Rasmussen said they were inspired to do Wave to simplify communication. "With today's tools if you want live interaction you need an instant messaging client and a document editor with rich format capability. But we prefer a world where everything's available to you right while you're doing live communications.

"E-mail is an incredibly successful protocol, but with the [technology] advances since then, we think we can do better."

Now that the cat's out of the Wave bag, interested users will just have to wait for the closed beta period to finish and the service is deemed ready for public release.

Perhaps the biggest surprise beyond Wave's announcement was that Google was able to keep its development under wraps until today. It no doubt helped that the Rasmussens and their team operated out of Sydney, Australia, though Lars did say about 3,000 Googlers have been using a test version of Wave for awhile.