At their recent developer conference, Google gave the delegates a sneak peek of their new product, Google Wave. You can see the Google Wave demonstrations for yourself on YouTube.

Disclaimer: I’ve not used Google Wave at all, just viewed the release video and read a bunch of other commentaries. My comments below (in italics) are based on their developer early access preview and things are likely to change markedly between now and release.

So, what is Google Wave?

Google Wave is an attempt to reinvent email - and other online styles of interaction - building on the lessons we’ve learnt from email, newsgroups, forums, wikis, instant messaging and the like.

The fundamental unit of Google Wave is the conversation: not a single message, but a collection of messages and their relationships, forming a tree of information.

Using a conversation as the basis of Google Wave is probably the real breakthrough here. As with many paradigm breakthroughs, this is obvious in hindsight but took real brilliance to see. Working with conversations eliminates a whole class of problems around the relationships between messages, necessary for subject threading and other features common to conventional mail applications.

It doesn’t particularly matter whether participants in a single “wave” (their term for a conversation) are currently online or offline. Those who are online and viewing the wave see changes made by other wave participants in near real-time. Other participants who return to the wave after changes have been made can easily see those changes and review them at their own pace. New participants, added mid-way through discussions, may play back the entire conversation and make their own contributions.

Supporting a mix of asynchronous and synchronous interactions provides a good bridge between the current forms of instant messaging and email, where bridging between mediums is difficult at best. It also provides one solution to the common problem of bringing someone up to speed partway through a discussion.

One interesting feature of a wave is the ability to make part of a conversation private, limiting visibility to specific participants. It appears to work by marking a particular branch of the wave “tree” with different permissions.

I wonder whether this visibility is enforced by the client or the server?

Google are talking up Google Wave as a protocol against which they hope that others will develop their own clients. This raises the possibility of some participants using a “tainted” client that doesn’t adhere to the normal rules. For the permissions scheme to work properly, for so called “private” content to remain private, that content must never be transmitted across the wire except to those who are entitled to view it.

Changes to a wave are always recorded at the end, allowing playback of the wave to see how the conversation evolved over time. By default, any participant within the wave has rights to change any part of the wave, allowing for collaborative document development.

From what I’ve seen so far, I’m concerned that Google has not yet given enough consideration to the security implications of the Wave model. If I’m using Google Wave as a blog engine (one of the scenarios they’re demonstrating), then I don’t want responses (comments) to appear in the middle of my blog post, because that disrupts the flow of the point that I want to make. I certainly don’t want any random contributor to be able to change the wording of my post, putting their words in my mouth.

I suggest that security needs to be tighter by default - waves that get published to my blog should automatically be secure.

There are implications for business scenarios as well. In many institutions it is just as important to know _when_ something was said as _who_ said it - being able to prove that you did (or did not) know key information can be vital when there are suspicions of fraud or insider trading.

In the video, the Google Team showed that Google Wave is working cross-browser, with demonstrations shown within Chrome, Safari and Firefox.

The cross browser compatibility they show is pretty impressive, with only a few differences visible. It’s interesting, though, that they didn’t use Internet Explorer as well, especially given the high market share that Internet Explorer still holds. I wonder if it was just a matter of time and space during the keynote, or whether there are underlying issues to be resolved?

While Google haven’t announced any dates, they do keep referring to Google Wave going live “later this year”. Assuming they mean a calendar year (instead of a financial one), we’ll all be able to get our hands on it and start evaluating it for real pretty soon.

I’m looking forward to it.


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June 2009