Gmail in real-time: Google does the Wave

Google unveils an ambitious project to create what it calls the "e-mail of the future," and the reactions of developers at Google I/O will be telling.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
4 min read

When recipients respond to Wave messages, everyone on the thread sees the replies as they are being typed. Google

Updated 12:28 p.m. PDT with additional comments from Google.

Google is ready to start talking about its answer to demand for real-time--yet organized--Internet communication.

Google on Thursday publicly demonstrated Google Wave for the first time at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco. Billed as "the e-mail of the future," Google Wave is the result of a multiyear project inside of Google to reinvent the inbox, blending e-mail, instant messaging, photo sharing, and perhaps, with input from developers, connections to the world of social networking.

Lars Rasmussen demos Google Wave
Lars Rasmussen helped lead the development and demonstration of Google Wave. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google Wave is an attempt to "combine conversation-type communication and collaboration-type communication," said Lars Rasmussen, who launched the project with his brother Jens after Google acquired their mapping start-up in 2004. The brothers Rasmussen said they were inspired by the fact that two of the most commonly used Internet communication technologies--e-mail and instant messaging--are based on relatively ancient offline communication techniques, namely the letter and the telephone.

The Rasmussens were given the authority to create "one of the most autonomous independent groups we've had at Google," said co-founder Sergey Brin in a press conference following the demonstration. Given the success the brothers had in developing the technologies behind Google Maps, Brin was inclined to "give them the benefit of the doubt" when Lars came to him pitching a bid to reinvent Internet communication.

They came up with Google Wave, which organizes Internet discussions in the trendy stream of consciousness fashion. It's a little bit Twitter, a little bit Friendfeed, and a little bit Facebook all in one service, allowing you to send direct messages to online contacts with real-time replies, share photos or documents, and add or delete members of the conversation as needed.

In that sense, it's not a completely public discussion, nor a completely private one. A user creates a "wave" by typing a message or uploading photos and adding contacts to the wave as they see fit. Other contacts can be added later, and those people can add other contacts to the wave unless the original wave starter forbids new entrants.

"Each person that we show it too, something different resonates as useful" to their way of communicating on the Internet, said Stephanie Hannon, project manager for Google Wave.

At the moment, the functionality is somewhat limited, but Google is introducing Google Wave at its developer conference for a reason: "a lot of this depends on developer uptake," Rasmussen said. The company will release APIs (application programming interfaces) at the conference so that developers can start testing how to build Wave into their own sites, or how to integrate their services with Google's.

Google envisions three types of developer projects using Wave. The first is the most obvious; using Wave as a gateway for conversations that you're already having elsewhere on Twitter, Friendfeed, Facebook, blogs, and other social media sites.

There are plenty of reasons for Google to try to tap into the "stickiness" of various social networks, where users spend obscene amounts of time. And the company thinks that services such as Twitter recognize the value of letting others build a front end into their services: there are dozens of Twitter apps for PCs and smartphones that grant such access without having to use Twitter's own front end, and those apps don't seem to have put much of a dent in Twitter's overall traffic. For starters, Google Wave will allow users to post new items to blogs created with Blogger from within a wave, and see comments and replies within a wave.

E-mail, instant message, wiki, or nanoblog? Wave combines elements from all of these communication methods. Google

The second category involves creating applications that run within a wave, similar to how developers have used Facebook as a platform to create all sorts of applications. Collaborative games are expected to be among the first applications to appear within Google Wave.

Lastly, Google wants developers to think of Wave as a possible enhancement to an existing workflow within an enterprise. The example Rasmussen used was a bug tracker used by software developers to identify and assign bugs. Bugs could be organized in waves; participants post the new bug to a global wave, then the team leader can assign bugs to individual team members within the wave, and developers can comment on their fix for a particular bug as they are tackled and cleared, all within the same thread.

The software has a long way to go: Google is releasing it as a developer preview on Thursday, and is actively looking for feedback on how it can improve. Sometime later this year Google expects to release it to the general public, but Rasmussen would not commit to a more specific timeframe.

Google also plans to open-source the format at the heart of Google Wave as a protocol in order to let developers build their own waves. The company has not determined the license that will be used to open-source the code, Rasmussen said.

Developer feedback will be crucial toward gauging the impact of Google Wave in a marketplace crowded with similar ideas. For months, Google has been pressed with inquiries about whether or not it plans to buy companies like Twitter or others that specialize in real-time Internet communication, and thus far, the company has demurred.

Now we know why.