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Google Waves Goodbye to E-Mail, Welcomes Real-Time Communication

SAN FRANCISCO — Google has set out to rewire the e-mail inbox with a new product called Wave.

Wave is a web-based application that marries multiple forms of communication and collaboration, including chat, mail and wikis, into a unified interface. Everything inside Wave happens in real time: You can even see a comment being made as the person is typing it, character-by-character.

Google Wave, which was demonstrated Thursday at the Google I/O developer conference taking place here, is now live as a private developer preview. Conference attendees can start playing with it now, and Google has its eye on a public beta launch within a few months.

It’s a peculiar model we haven’t seen before, sort of a “chat inside e-mail” approach that has the potential to profoundly alter the way we share information and collaborate with one another.

There are few effective ways to communicate within small groups, whether co-workers, friends, or family. Most of us use e-mail, just addressing a new message to a bunch of people. This starts a thread, which eventually gets twisted and fragmented into side conversations and becomes more and more confusing. The more-organized among us use tools like IM or IRC chat rooms, wikis, group blogs or web apps built for threaded communications, such as FriendFeed.

Google Wave is an attempt to replace not one but all of these methods, rolling threaded conversations, real-time chat, nested comments, media sharing, link sharing and wiki-style collaboration into a familiar interface that looks and behaves like an e-mail inbox, complete with folders for keeping things organized and a search box for digging up older threads.

Here’s how it works. First, a screenshot:

A user starts a “wave,” a new thread in the system. At first, it looks just like an e-mail. A wave usually starts as text, but photos can be dragged in, and videos or maps can be embedded. The user invites friends by dragging and dropping names from a list of contacts in a sidebar. New users can start leaving comments in line, setting a break point in the original text and adding a comment directly below the paragraph, photo or whatever piece of the wave they want to comment on. There’s even a built in spell-checker that’s context-sensitive.

As the new user is leaving a comment, everyone involved in the wave can see the comments being typed in, in real time, letter by letter. Edits can be made concurrently, so two or more users can see one anothers’ changes flowing in, even as they’re leaving their comments, making edits or uploading images.

And it really is instantaneous: Google is measuring Wave’s latency in the low milliseconds.

The methods of communicating we’ve grown used to in the last decade, primarily e-mail and instant messaging, are being usurped by more intuitive and time-sensitive alternatives on the social web. Thanks to Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook, the emphasis now is on real-time communication: Updates are expected instantly, and we leave many of our conversations open for comments. There’s an initial flurry of activity, a constant stream of back-and-forth chatter between participants. Conversations morph and evolve quickly, then, hours or days later, eventually sputter out and fade.

This is the model Wave is clearly embracing. But Google didn’t initially set out to build a better Twitter or a better FriendFeed.

“In a sense, we’ve taken a cue from almost every communication tool that’s ever existed,” Google senior software engineer Jens Rasmussen, one of the leads on the Wave team, tells Webmonkey. And since Wave has been in development for more than two-and-a-half years, he says it has evolved alongside the social, real-time web we’re living in today, taking new cues along the way.

Even though the emphasis is on real time, the structure that’s left behind after the fact is just as important, Rasmussen says. Users can create persistent searches on any phrase or topic. Also, new participants can “play back” the wave to see how the conversation developed over time, from the original message onwards.

It’s also important to note Wave is very much a web app, built entirely in JavaScript and with several HTML 5 elements for modern browsers which support the nascent spec.

Images can be dragged and dropped into the app in the browser if Gears is installed. All of the uploading happens in the background, thanks to the web-workers component of HTML 5. Wave also has an API, so people can put waves on their web pages. The whole interface of the wave gets embedded in the page, but it can be styled to match the blog or external site. Replies, questions and edits all appear in real time.

There’s a new protocol at work behind the scenes here, and Google is making it available under an open source license. Both the client and the server code will be released, so third-party apps can be built on the desktop or for the browser, and companies or groups can run their own private instances. However, because Wave is built using a federated protocol, different instances will be able to communicate with one another seamlessly across the single platform.

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