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Google on Wave: "It'll be five years before we can say 'this actually works'"

Six months on, Google reflects on the hype and disappointment of Wave's launch. We chat to Wave co-founder Lars Rasmussen about the service, and his plans for its future

Six months on from its tumultuous launch, CNET UK found Google Wave's engineering manager Lars Rasmussen in reflective mood. Co-creator of the excellent Google Maps and presenter of Wave's famous developer preview video, Rasmussen discussed with us building the service, the monumental hype and eventual disappointment surrounding Wave's launch, and Google's ambitious plans for its future.

It's over a year since Google Wave, the online collaboration tool from everyone's favourite search behemoth, was announced at Google's I/O Developer conference in San Francisco. Astonishingly well received despite being shown at an incredibly early stage in the development process, Wave-mania quickly escalated. It rapidly broke free of developer circles and, fed by a ravenous tech press, drove the Twitter-reading public into a frenzy.

When it was finally made public in September of last year -- open at first only to 100,000 carefully chosen developers who were then able to invite others -- the Twitterverse and blogosphere went crazy, with people clamouring for invites to the magical service that would make email obsolete and revolutionise online communication. Wave-mania arguably reached its zenith when news broke that some enterprising so-and-sos even tried selling their invite codes on eBay.

All of which meant that when most people actually got their sticky mitts on Google Wave, they found themselves distinctly underwhelmed. Sure it worked fine, but it was confusing and the applications and benefits of using it weren't immediately obvious. It wasn't really a failure, but it was far from a success, and people had come to expect much more from Google.

We wanted to know what the Wave team had learned from that experience and where they're taking the technology.

What are the origins of Google Wave?

"My brother [Jens Rasmussen] and I started the project -- the original idea predated our involvement with Google, and later while working for Google, we pulled the idea out of a drawer and decided to work on it.

"Really, it was my brother's idea. His observation was that email and IM [instant messaging] were really very old technologies -- it's technology that predates the Internet, really. Plus, email is very much like sending a letter, and IM is analogous to a phone conversation -- if we pretend that we didn't have those preconceptions, if we lose the 'conversation' metaphor, what would we do with the technology we have now?"

You presented Wave at the Google I/O developer conference when it was still at a very early stage. Do you regret showing off an unfinished product?

"What we showed was a preview, and what Wave is today is still a preview. That presentation was wildly popular, it has over 9 million views on YouTube, and that popularity was a little unexpected. When something becomes that hyped up, there's kind of a built-in guarantee of disappointment. I wish I could tell you I was experienced enough to just shrug all of that off. Thankfully now we're just now starting to climb out of that trough."

It's interesting to learn that Wave's huge amount of hype wasn't something Google necessarily intended. Was it just a happy accident? Or indeed, an unhappy accident?

"Well, we put ourselves on a big stage with a lot of people watching, so we're totally to blame for that. Plus, we already knew that Google gave really good demos. A lot of people were talking about Wave before it was made available, and we didn't particularly plan that. It was a blast to get the kind of reaction that we did receive, but somewhere in the back of my mind there was a voice saying, 'There's the potential for huge disappointment here.' I wish I had been hipper to that idea.

"If we had a parallel universe, I'd have tried announcing it both ways. With Maps, we put the service online and watched the userbase slowly grow, and we worked from feedback we were receiving, and gradually it became very popular. Really it was the opposite to Google Wave, which we publicly announced to an audience of 4,000 developers."

Do you think people understood Google Wave when it became available?

"Well, at first it went out to developers, and the technically minded, who played with it, found great uses for it and more importantly understood that it was, at that stage, an immature product. As we got further down the line we found people who weren't quite so technical but had seen all the hype on Twitter, for example, and they struggled a little more with the product.

"Now we're working on making Wave friendly for people who don't know anything about it before using it. We're nearly there, and when we reach that stage we'll start phasing out the invitation system, and making it more available."

All hype aside, what kind of figures are you seeing for Wave?

"We have about half a million to a million active users at this point, which is healthy, but a small number compared to Google's other products."

What can we expect from Wave in the near future?

"We need to finish Google Wave. Stability, speed, usability are all things we're working to improve and work towards a finished product.

"We've just added email notifications -- previously you had to log in to Wave to see changes to any individual waves. We've added a Facebook-style notification that gets sent to your inbox, which contains a direct link to what it was you were working on. We also want to make it so that you can add any email user to a Wave.

"Currently we're putting out a new version roughly every week. Changes are all very gradual, but returning customers are commenting on how much faster and more stable newer versions are. We've been working very hard, but we have gone pretty quiet. In the second half of this year you'll probably start hearing more from us."

What are the long-term plans for Wave? What is Google hoping to achieve?

"One of our reasons for announcing Wave so early was that we wanted other organisations to build their own Wave systems -- you should be able to wave with users who are using other protocols, say a Yahoo or Microsoft Wave. Novell are working on Pulse, a collaboration tool that used to be separate, but after we announced Wave they started working to allow compatibility across product boundaries.

"We're not trying to build just another Google product. We firmly believe that all the interest and excitement we saw back then was well-founded. But it's not going to happen overnight. It will be five years before we can say 'this actually works.'"

Google may have promised more than it could deliver when Wave went live in September, but having spoken to Rasmussen it would be foolish to count Wave out at this point, or dismiss it as a failed experiment. It sounds as if Rasmussen and his team are attempting, slowly and methodically, nothing short of a complete overhaul of the way we communicate every day. Whether or not you think something that revolutionary is likely to happen -- or even possible -- if there's one company with the drive and the resources to give it a go, surely it's Google.