E-mail has been dawdling along in much the same form since the early days of the Internet. In fact, e-mail now feels like a pretty stodgy, clunky and formal style of online communication these days. But hold onto your seats, because Google is about to turn e-mail on its head with the release of a revolutionary new technology called Google Wave that's due to start trickling into users' hands this September. Wave combines the strengths of e-mail with the immediacy of instant messaging and the collaborative power of social networking - and wraps that all up into a killer web application that can then be embedded into any web page or used as a private communication system. Sound complicated? It is - but you'll understand it perfectly after watching this ten-minute video.
E-mail is an information-age technology that seems to still operate according to a lot of the principles and limitations that govern snail-mail. In fact, with email communication reaching almost total penetration through at least the western world, it's starting to feel distinctly like a redundant and constrictive way of communicating. Email feels particularly stiff and official, for example, compared with instant messaging communications that can often get a result much quicker, in a more social manner.
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And then there's social networking - sites like Facebook and Twitter are revolutionizing communication among friends. Post and tag a photo, and all your buddies can comment on it. Asynchronous group conversations are thriving in this new medium.
Google has been watching carefully. The company's history of out-there innovation started with what became the world's most popular search engine, but soon branched out into a massive spectrum of amazing online technologies. One of the most popular has been Gmail - Google's online email tool and a competitor to Microsoft's Hotmail. Gmail's innovative way of handling emails in conversational threads won it a lot of fans - in fact, it could well overtake the much more established Hotmail this year in terms of pure user numbers.
Now, Google is looking at how it might revolutionize the online communication industry and move to a truly new type of tool that surpasses email and renders it obsolete. What the company has come up with is an incredibly cool idea called Google Wave that combines the functions and features of email, instant messaging, multi-user document sharing and social networking.
Wave is a very complex system, and a tough one to summarize without a demonstration. In fact, the initial Google presentation to introduce the new technology was about an hour and twenty minutes in length. Ouch. Thankfully, the guys at PhoneDog.com have gone through and cut that presentation down into a very dense 10 minute YouTube video that will give you a good idea of what Wave is all about if you can stay focused for its entire length. Check it out:
Effectively, each piece of communication becomes a "wave" that is sent to another person or group of people. From there, rather than replying to the whole "email," other users can insert their responses at any point in the communication - and each keystroke appears on all the wave's users' screens immediately. It's like having an instant message conversation based on an email. And once you've commented into part of the wave, other users can respond to your comments, much like on Facebook, but in realtime.
Photo-sharing can be handled in much the same way, and once the photos are out there in a wave, other users can tag, comment and collaborate on them much the same as they could in a social network. There's lots of options as regards privacy etc - you can turn off the instant transmission of keystrokes, for example, to let you think your sentences over a bit more before others read them. And if the idea of such a collaborative document creation system seems a bit messy, you can go back and replay the whole wave from the start and see what discussions happened where in the wave's timeline.
Perhaps one of the best parts of the Wave idea is that any wave can be used as an embedded piece of content on a website. So, if your band is putting on a concert, you can post a wave of your concert poster up on your site, and your fans can log in and respond as if they're using Facebook. They can upload photos from the show and discuss how they thought it went - right there on your band's website, without the need to build your own discussion engines and the like.
The idea is to open up the stodgy framework of email, and let e-communications move to a more informal, collaborative and social model. And frankly, it looks like a real game-changer. The presentation shown above was a developer preview, intended to get third-party application developers interested in using Wave as a platform - and Google expects that the real power of the system will start being realised when application and plug-in developers start building on the platform.
Personally, I can say that I've been happily using Gmail since its early days - and I thought THAT was revolutionary. Wave is a massive leap forward, and I can't wait to get my hands on an account when the system starts going live to limited numbers of public users this September.