Given the amount of hype around Google Wave since it was first announced, one would expect to be astonished and amazed by a radical new take on collaboration and Web development. Based on my initial tests, Google Wave has potential but isn’t a game-changer-at least not now.
At this point, Google Wave is still just a developer preview, and it looks very much like one-with all of the rawness and the limited scope of features and capabilities that one would expect. Indeed, there isn’t much in the Google Wave developer preview that hasn’t been seen before in other Web 2.0 collaboration and mashup platforms.
But that doesn’t mean that Google Wave doesn’t have the potential to live up to its hype. There are definitely some intriguing capabilities in Wave that could easily be leveraged by inventive developers to build important new applications and systems. Only time will tell if Wave will be a major Google success like Gmail or if it will be tossed aside like Lively.
When first logging into the developer preview of Google Wave, the initial interface is one that looks very much like standard e-mail. In fact, it looks more like traditional e-mail than it does Gmail. I think that’s a good thing, as I’m one of the many who find Gmail’s stacked message style to be ill-suited to collaborative discussions.
At first, getting around Wave can be a little confusing, and I spent a good part of the first day of testing just getting used to it. But once I had my “aha!” moment, I found the tool to be simple to use and navigate.
The main dashboard interface is pretty standard e-mail, with customized folders and searches, a contacts area, and a listing of Waves in essentially an e-mail message list.
However, when you enter the main Wave area, which is where all the collaboration takes place, things change quite a bit.
First, a lesson in Google Wave terminology. A Wave is essentially a fully stand-alone discussion. A project management-type person would probably call it a project or a task. Within each Wave is a Wavelet, which is essentially a message that can be threaded as users reply to it. Each individual reply or entry is a Blip.
From a basic collaboration standpoint, this model works well. I could create threaded discussions and collaborate with others in real time. The one fairly unique collaboration aspect of Wave right now is that it shows collaborators typing in real time, with a colored box next to the typing showing the person’s name.
Unfortunately, this identification didn’t last. Each Blip or Wavelet showed the name of the author, but if collaborators worked within a Blip, there was no record of who did what.
Collaborators can embed pretty much any type of content in a Wave, from documents to images to video to maps. In general, this process worked well in tests.
By far, the most intriguing features of the Google Wave developer preview are for developers (as it should be).
The main tools for extending Google Waves are gadgets and robots. Gadgets are essentially applications that can be embedded inside Google Waves, and robots are extensions that carry out automated actions based on data changes within a Wave.
All of these capabilities are currently added and accessed through the Debug menu in Google Wave. From here I could browse through existing gadgets and extensions, or directly add any extension for which I had an XML URL for.
As is common with most developer previews, the first batch of gadgets tend toward fun and games, but these gadgets do a good job of showing some of the potential interactions. And many more useful gadgets-such as some that use Google Maps to show locations of all participants in a Wave-are already popping up.
There is definitely a great deal of potential in these developer tools, which can be used to add functionality and address shortcomings in Google Wave. For example, it would not be difficult to build a robot that added the commenting-history capabilities that I was unable to find in this test.
Another interesting aspect of Google Wave is the ability to embed any Wave into external Websites. Using simple embed code like that found in most widgets on the Web, it’s a simple matter to take a Wave to any Website you own.
To do this, I just pulled the Wave ID (accessible from the Debug menu) of my Waves, then, using sample embed code, I added Waves to my sites. Several of my Waves failed to display properly on my external sites, though these were ones that were usually tied to complex gadgets. To see a successful example, here’s a Wave of a Magic 8 Ball robot that I placed in a post on the Emerging Technologies blog.
To me, this ability to embed Waves could become key to the growth of Google Wave. One can see a large number of unique applications and collaborative interactive systems that could be easily built on Waves. With the simple embedding process, it would be trivial to extend the functionality of Websites with Google Waves (and extend the data penetration of Google into even more Websites).
Right now, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone but developers try out this early release of Google Wave. But if you are a Web developer, you should definitely try to get your hands dirty with this latest tool from Google.
To get more information on Google Wave, go to wave.google.com.
Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.