File Under: Software & Tools

Google Invites Everyone to Catch Its Real-Time Wave

Google Wave is opening up to the general public for the first time Tuesday, the company has announced.

Just over 100,000 invitations are being sent out to users who had previously requested access to the web-based real-time communications service on a first-come, first-served basis. Wave invites should be arriving in e-mail inboxes throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday day.

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

Wave was soft-launched in May with a public demo at Google’s I/O developer conference in San Francisco. Access was given only to early testers and developers at the time, however (We were lucky enough to be invited to give it a spin).

Wave solves a unique problem for web users as we deal with the proliferation of web-based collaboration tools and real-time communications services. On one side, you have cloud-based document sharing, photo sharing, wikis and other tools for collaboration. Then there are services built for real-time communication — chat is an obvious one, but other services like Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed (which Facebook purchased in August before releasing its code) also aim to make real-time sharing a bigger part of our online experience.

Efforts are ongoing to tie them all together, including the emerging Activity Streams data specification, which makes it easier for multiple real-time services to tell each other what users are posting or commenting on.

But each of these services and tools fills its own niche, and, for now at least, each occupies its own browser tab or, in Facebook’s case, its own section within a website. Wave is one of the only services trying to bring them all together into a unified interface.

“The observation that our communication lines are very fragmented — we’re certainly not the first ones to bring that up,” Wave engineering manager Lars Rasmussen tells Webmonkey.

And it’s also not a problem Rasmussen thinks his team can totally solve. However, he’s confident they will come close enough to make a huge impact on the emerging real-time web.

“Can you invent a single tool that has all the functionality of all the other tools? Maybe not. But in a year from now, we’ll have quite a lot of users who are in love with Wave even if it doesn’t completely handle everything they need for their communications.”

Tuesday’s release is not a general launch. Google is still pushing Wave out gently, so even though well over a million people have asked for access, Google is only honoring a fraction of the requests.

“We tried to invite a mix of people in enterprise, startups and schools,” Rasmussen says. He also says a very small number of paying Google Apps customers will be given access, and anyone involved in the developer tests over the summer will get to keep their access. The Wave team is based in Australia (the reason the launch is happening overnight in North America), and they made sure to give a higher priority to a few Aussie companies for now so they could collect some on-site, hands-on feedback.

Wave isn’t due for a real public launch until 2010. It’s still quite buggy, so Tuesday’s release is more akin to alpha or early beta software than a fully functional service.

“We wanted to give access only to people who have a high level of interest in dealing with preview-quality software,” Rasmussen says.

The team hasn’t been busy adding features. Rather, they feel the core functionality of Wave — the ability to replace things like long mail threads and online document sharing with real-time collaboration, sort of a “chat within e-mail” experience — holds enough value that they’ve simply been concentrating on improving the baseline performance.

“Latency is an obsession of ours,” says Rasmussen.

Some limitations within the browser are keeping Wave from running as quickly as he wants. When a Wave becomes long, for example, it can take awhile to open it. The team is working on a pre-loading system where you don’t have to load the whole Wave to start reading it or adding to it, just the first couple of pages. Then as you scroll, it keeps loading, speeding things up.

Another hang-up, one typical of young web applications, is that Wave slows down after you’ve used it for a few hours. This is due to memory leaks, and refreshing the browser page or restarting the browser solves it. But plugging those holes so browser refreshes aren’t necessary is the obvious goal.

There are two nice improvements in Tuesday’s launch.

First is that Wave is now tied to your regular Google account. Anyone who’s been involved in the sandboxed testing phase over the last few months has had to log in using a test account set up by Google. This account was kept isolated from your regular Google account, so you couldn’t use Wave to collaborate with any of your regular contacts. You could use Wave, but it was a little lonely.

Starting Tuesday, anyone with Wave access can now log in using their regular Google account. You’ll be able to communicate with any of your regular Google contacts who also have Wave access. You’ll also be given eight invitations each to hand out (Google’s calling them “nominations”). Anyone you invite gets put into the request queue.

The second improvement is a new system for installing add-ons. Developers have been busy building widgets that show off the real-time collaboration platform’s powers. Along with making those more accessible, Google has made installing them a simpler, two-click process.

Users will find a Sudoku game where you race against other people to fill in columns and rows in real-time, as well as a trip planner gadget developed by Lonely Planet.

Anyone running Firefox, Safari or Google Chrome will have few problems running Wave. Internet Explorer users who feel things to be a little janky or sluggish should try installing Google’s Chrome Frame extension for Microsoft’s browser.

See Also: