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Google Wave - interwebs idealism in real-time

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Let's send an emailim

The project began in 2007. Google Maps had launched, and the Rasmussens were looking for what the world insists on calling a new challenge. It was Jens who suggested that they reinvent online communication, and Lars said "Yes" right away - or almost right away.

"The thing that really caught me was that he said instant messaging-type conversations and email-type conversations shouldn’t really be two separate things," Lars remembers. "I remember being sold immediately – though Jens says it took several hours."

But the brothers agree that the project was sparked by this fairly simple idea. They weren't trying to mimic or compete with existing systems, they say. They were trying to build something new.

Of course, they then looked to existing systems for help. "We tried to take inspiration from absolutely everything that we could get our hands on and read about in terms of communication and collaboration," Lars said, though he avoided pointing to specific tools.

Later in the day, Wave developer David Wang pointed out that the app's concurrent editing engine - one of its more impressive tools - is based on the client-server "operational transformation" (OT) architecture introduced by the Jupiter Collaboration System developed at Xerox PARC. Basically, the server holds all the documents, and the client can't edit without sending an operation to the server. "The server takes each received operation and transforms it against the operations you've already applied," Wang said.

But Google gave OT a new twist. A Wave client can't send an operation unless it first gets a response from the server. That way, the server needn't mirror the document for each client. It can maintain a single copy, Wang says, rather than many, thus improving speed.

Wang bills Wave as the only concurrent editor that handles rich text. But Google's OT twist also allowed for something it calls "playback" - another piece of demo eye candy that had developers ooing and ahhing at Moscone Center. If you visit a document that's already been edited by others, you can playback all their edits, reviewing the changes as if they'd been screen-captured.

Wave is brimming with such small pleasures - tools guaranteed to wow an audience of Google-worshiping developers during a surprise Google demo. Some new. Some old. Some both. There's an automatic spell checker, built with Wave's extension API. There's a button that lets you respond to a particular sentence within an email, not just the email as a whole. And as Lars Rasmussen pointed out, Google has gone back to the future with its character-by-character IM chats.

"It occurred to us that by doing this live submission of characters – which by the way was how the original instant messaging clients worked – you could speed things up tremendously," Lars said. "It’s not just because you don’t have to sit and wait for the person typing, but in actual practice, you lose your attention on the conversation when you don’t see what the other person is doing."

Rasmussen and team acknowledged that you might not want the world to see every character you type - and mistype. But they haven't gotten around to adding an off switch.

'What good for the web...'

And that's Wave for you. It makes a great demo. But as Google said time and again yesterday, it's just a developer prototype. Yesterday, the company indicated that a public version will arrive by the end of the year. Where things might go after that is anyone's guess - including Google's.

Vic Gundotra did indicate that pieces of Wave will be rolled into existing Google online apps, including Gmail and Google Docs. "What you saw was an early developer release of some fantastic capabilities. Those capabilities will be packaged with Wave, but there may be other places where you'll see them," he said. "Over the next couple of months, we'll figure out how to bring these things together so that our existing hundreds of millions of users of Gmail and Docs can also get access to these things."

But the thing to remember is that Google Wave isn't just an app. It's a protocol. Or at least it will be. The idea was to create a new communication paradigm that everyone will use.

Googlers like to say: "What good for the web is good for Google." And at yesterday's press briefing, Gundotra said much the same thing. He even acknowledged that the web brings Google lots of money.

"Google has a very deep desire and interest in moving the web forward," he said. "We think everyone benefits from that, including Google. If the web becomes more powerful, as richer applications emerge, that all creates greater usage. And greater usage of the internet eventually means more Google searches. So we're not only interested in moving the web forward because it's [generally] a good thing. Economically, it's good for us as well."

Of course, there's always the possibility that Wave will fail to move the web anywhere. And even if it does, there's a limit to the cash generated by mere web usage. Otherwise, Google wouldn't be scrambling for ad dollars over at YouTube. But for the time being, Sergey Brin can afford to let the Rasmussens do whatever they want.

We asked the brothers what's next. But they wouldn't say. ®

Bootnote

You can view the full Google Wave demo here:

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