Rory Cellan-Jones

Who will ride Google's Wave?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 30 Sep 09, 09:22 GMT

Earlier this week, I spent an hour inside Google's London headquarters chatting to two developers, swapping photos, editing documents - and playing a bit of sudoku. What was unusual was that Lars Rasmussen and Stephanie Hannon were joining the conversation from Sydney in Australia.

That is where the Google Wave development team is based and they were demonstrating the search firm's hottest new application, which is now being made available to around 100,000 trial users.

I knew that Wave was a collaborative tool that had caused a great deal of excitement when it was demonstrated at a Google developers conference in May. But it took me some time to puzzle out what makes it really different - and, despite its sheer cleverness, I'm still not entirely sure that it will take off.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Lars and Stephanie started the demo by launching a "wave" - much like starting a conversation - and inviting me to join (I was using the login of a London-based Googler). Then we began exchanging messages - rather as you would in any instant messaging application. The only difference seemed to be that we each could see what the others were writing even before they had sent their messages, which meant that even before I had completed "how is the weather in Sydney?", Lars was typing back that it was sunny.

When I suggested that this appeared to be little more than a combination of e-mail and instant messaging on steroids, they said that was not a bad description but there was a lot more. Collaborative editing, for instance, which allows you to alter documents or messages sent by others in the wave, as well as your own. Then there is the ability to post photos into the wave and let others share them, or edit them. But it's also a new platform open to developers - Lars and Stephanie showed me a sudoku game, which is one of a number of Wave plugins already available, even before the launch.

They described a few user cases - you might want to plan a trip, swapping maps, editing schedules, and then posting photos to the wave afterwards. Or perhaps you might be working with a team on a major report for your employer, using Wave to write, discuss and edit the document.

But surely the kind of people who want to plan a trip together will use the likes of Facebook to do that? And there are already tools which let colleagues collaborate on work projects. I use Google Docs, although I often find it difficult to persuade others to join up - they usually prefer to have the document e-mailed to them.

And that's the big question: will Google Wave achieve the network effect it needs to be a real winner?

Google WaveI can see that it's a useful way of bringing together the best aspects of e-mail, instant messaging and social networking sites in one browser-based application. It's been developed by people for whom it is natural to collaborate online - but is there a critical mass of users like that out there?

I asked a friend who often works on big reports with a team of people scattered around the world whether Google Wave might be the answer for her.

Right now, she tends to e-mail reports in Microsoft Word format, back and forth, with changes clearly visible simply by the date-stamp on each version. She had immediate questions about Wave.

For example, could one person be in charge of editing? And could you work offline, so that you could read your Wave document on, say, a plane and then upload the changes when you landed?

Google says that there is a playback function which allows you to remove or edit contributions, and it's working on an offline version. My friend still seemed dubious, and she's reasonably open-minded - so maybe getting the network effect going will prove a challenge.

It's worth remembering too that not every Google product is a winner - for every Gmail, there's a Google Answers languishing in the outer reaches of cyberspace. Still, the proof of the pudding will be in what those 100,000 test users find to do with their waves. I hope to be among them, so will report back when I've given the tyres a good kicking.


  • Comment number 1.

    Got a feeling that this will be used by a very niche core of people, I for one can think of no reason why I'd ever need to use it.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks Google, but no thanks. I shall stay with windows live messenger for my IMing needs

  • Comment number 3.

    I think early dissenters and critics are largely missing the point. This technology has a lot of promise, and at a core level has a fantastic chance of success for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, this is not an attempt by Google to compete with existing technologies - it more feels as though they are trying to achieve a smooth transition from old internet usage paradigms to a more modern understanding of how the web should work.

    People who say, for example, "I can't imagine ever using this", or "I think I'll just stick to using what I know" are largely failing to recognise the function of this technology. The fact that they have open-sourced the protocol and APIs will allow the full integration of this concept with their existing platforms - e.g. MSN, etc. - so there's every chance that they'll end up using it anyway.

    Secondly - and I'll mention it once again, so as not to understate it - Google is open-sourcing the protocol and the API tools upon which the system is built. That is a huge and generous offering. If they had chosen to lock it down in a proprietary model, then the scope for evolution would be slim, and it would have every chance of failing. Now, the concept has been fully thrown into the wild and can move in myriad directions and ultimately be shaped into an ideal usage situation.

    Thirdly, there is one feature that can make the Wave a very powerful part of the every day web, and that is the Embed API, which is (briefly) demo'd on the Google I/O keynote video. The technology is not confined to the Google Wave UI, but can be fully integrated with existing websites, a la Facebook Connect, etc., massively extending the reach of the concept, and changing the way we use the web on a far more wide-reaching basis.

    I think these reasons alone demonstrate the massive potential of the technology. This is not about Google trying to compete with existing technologies. This is about Google using its significant resources to help improve the internet for everyone.

  • Comment number 4.

    Having used Google Wave, I have to agree that I don't think it'll be a massive winner. Personally, I think one major problem is that the product tries too hard. It's quite a neat little tool, but aspires to be too much. Whilst I was taken in by the functionality at the I/O keynote, actually using it just feels messy.

    Also, with the number of updates you get from group messages, the important ones get left behind. Your inbox is full of random stuff you don't want, so you just mark the lot of it as read. Should there be an important message in there than you need to read, it's lost.

    Your description of IM on steroids is perfect. You can have an IM-type conversation with people, but the threading system gets very messy very quickly. And the more people you have, the messier it gets; so I suppose Google Wave actively encourages you to be less sociable.

  • Comment number 5.

    I agree with biddows, let's applaud Google for taking the sharing / open source approach to a neat piece of technology (I'm assuming - I haven't seen it yet) and not simply dismiss it by saying "I'm happy with what I have".

    Technology launches of recent times have often taken time to gather speed. It took me some time to swap trusty Hotmail for the slicker Gmail (and, yes, this was at the time Windows LiveMail was rolled out) but I literally could not return to a client which treats each e-mail as a certain entity rather than a conversation. What this does is extends on the concept that Gmail introduced, and was further explored by Facebook etc. and offers a truly real-time experience which can be altered (albeit crucially with history intact) to create a document of an experience between multiple communicators.

    With the API out there and usable by anyone don't be surprised if you find yourself using Google wave without even knowing it before long!

  • Comment number 6.

    As a developer who has been using the sandbox for a couple of months, I don't think in its current format that Wave will attract and keep hold of many 'mainstream' people.

    However, with the ability to create extensions, combined with the open sourcing of parts of Wave - it won't be long till developers build upon what Google have provided. This will help improve the functionality and offer more use cases to draw people towards Wave - with the potential for the technology to be used in the background without people fully realising what is powering the app they are using.

  • Comment number 7.

    My mate and I at university in the early 80s had an instant messaging application working between a BBC Micro and a Commodore VIC20 over RS232 between our rooms that didn't need the return key to send a message. We used to get people in to type on one machine and make them believe there was an artificial intelligence program running! They weren't convinced when they saw the spelling mistakes being corrected as the "AI" typed back to them!

  • Comment number 8.

    I think it is totally stupid (delete-word delete-word) slightly unwise to have live typing, with it the thought that a person is a raving lunatic (delete-word delete-word delete-letter) an unconventional thinker being seen live it seems that the curse of telepathy can not be far behind.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    I run a multinational company that makes everyday use of IM (skype usually), Google Docs, Email, VOIP...and we have found attempts to do business (both internally and externally) by instant messenger can end in tears.

    IM is great for rapid exchanges of tiny pieces of factual information. Email is great for carefully considered explanations, follow-ups, etc. but the thought of combining the two (on steroids) makes me afraid...

    IM is, alas, great for creating misunderstandings (particularly across international borders), and I can see Wave contributing to more of this.

    Collaborative editing is good and I couldn't work without it - but real-time will cause problems. Imagine being on the phone to someone and everytime you start making you point you are just interrupted by several other people who shout louder and louder until everyone gives in to the loudest most determined person.

    Anyone who does business with people remotely will surely agree that the a voice conversation is by far the most effective means for efficient communication, and even more so when followed up by email (or collaborative documents) confirming the salient points and next steps/action points.

    I'm going to try Wave (as a google lover I have to...), but with a great deal of caution.

  • Comment number 11.

    The most powerful argument I have seen for this application (courtesy of the I/O video) is how a person taking notes in a Wave during a meeting can respond in 'short-order' to requests prompted by a third party who is unable to attend the meeting, but is monitoring its progress via the Wave.

  • Comment number 12.

    I remember an IM program in the 90s that let you see what your conversation partner was typing as they typed it. It was so much better than other programs around at the time as a lot of people still had dial-up connections and waiting for the whole message to be type, transmitted, received and then displayed could be long.

    Microsoft is always playing catch-up with other companies. It always blasts other technologies until it has it's own version and then it is the only thing anyone will ever need, according to them. If significant enough numbers of people take up this application, expect Microsoft to anounce a much better version in the new year. Their hope will be to stall Google Wave long enough for them to launch a rival product a year later.

  • Comment number 13.

    Personally I see this as a disruptive technology. If the technology works, combining email threads, instant messaging, shared document editing and blogs most definately has a place within the business world. How many times have you been pulled into an email chain only to find that the attachments have all been lost along the way?
    I saw an article recently from Portsmouth University where they have adopted the Google clould platform (docs, mail etc) because their students were doing it anyway. These students will adopt Wave and like it or not it will become a major player in the future.

  • Comment number 14.

    Great job with this article, Rory!

    I think Google Wave is the first example of a new class of platform that will enable collaborations that are centered on content and which combine different modes of communication with user-generated and third-party tools.

    Researchers from Hewlett-Packard Labs in Bristol, UK published an article in IEEE Internet Computing on exactly this topic, available here:

  • Comment number 15.

    I have a feeling people won't just decide to use wave like they decide to install msn or an e-mail client - but website developers will start to embed it.
    So you'll log into your favourite website and then you'll be invited to participate in a "wave" embeded on that wesbite...
    that's how people will dip their toe in the water.

    Wave has many of the ingredients that we can expect to see in the future of internet communication - and if wave isn't adopted we'll see all those features somewhere else.

    But whether wave is the "DVD" or the "minidisk" remains to be seen

  • Comment number 16.

    I think it will be huge.

    I think that those that are dismissing it need to look beyond the screen they are looking at..

  • Comment number 17.

    I know the news article isn't yours, but contains an error, which is almost repeated in the blog. Wave was announced and demonstrated at the Google Developer Day at Wembley Stadium [yes, there is only one Wembley Stadium] last September, not May. I was there: I agree Lars and Jens are pathological optimists, but it does stand at least a chance of success in collaborative environments.

  • Comment number 18.

    Could be Twitter/Facebook on steroids. I can certainly see uses for it in project management, events organisation, news sharing and decision making in a crisis situation and so on.
    If people make apps for it too then who knows what else?

  • Comment number 19.

    One simple one - BT in one of its licence conditions hands £8m a year to the RNID to a run a special network for deaf users, relaying live text messages from special devices.

    This plus a broadband connection + a mobile phone for each deaf user and they have 24x7 real time capability.

  • Comment number 20.

    another dose of soma.

    dont need it. dont want it.

  • Comment number 21.

    "Got a feeling that this will be used by a very niche core of people, I for one can think of no reason why I'd ever need to use it."

    Comments like the above remind me of my own reaction to email when a friend in the computer sciences dept. at my uni. told me about it 25 or so years ago. I was, of course, completely wrong. I don't think most of us expected the Internet to be of quite so much importance to the general public quite so soon, either. Perhaps a failure of the imagination is not a solid basis on which to make predictions.

    I think Wave sounds exciting, and can hardly wait to try it out as a teaching tool. Perhaps in a year we come back and the nay sayers can say "I told you so," but I think they are more likely to be proved wrong.

  • Comment number 22.

    So anybody lucky enough to get selected for the test run?

  • Comment number 23.

    You mentioned collaborating with Google docs. Google docs is great for groups of people to work on the same document remotely. What Google docs doesn't do is capture the discussion going on while the people work on the document. That is what Google Wave acheives. The discussion is important to capture because it answers the question of why the group made the decisions it made while working on the document.

    Google Wave is a new way to work with people. Everyone involved remains current and in the present time. You can read what we found out when we kicked Google Wave's tyres at:

  • Comment number 24.

    It seems to me that the Wave Protocol is the biggest thing to happen to the internet since email. They are now blurring the boundaries between email, IM, collaborative documenting.

    Of course it will take people a while to get used to that. However the benefits are obvious. We shouldn't have to worry about whether what we are communicating is an email, an instant message, a document, a brainstorming session or whatever else - and we should definitely not have to worry about which program to use for which.

    One protocol which handles them all with out the need to differentiate. That's progress towards a simpler, more effective web.

    As for the Google Wave UI, it's a slick piece of kit and people will like it or not, but the Wave itself will propagate.

  • Comment number 25.

    I am interested in trying this out as part of brain storming sessions with remote clients and project partners.

    However, typically for me, although I was an early signer and an apps user, I have missed out on an invite!

    I have noticed one interesting thing though - two clients who did get invites (and they have shared with their company colleagues, sadly), found their invites in their Google Spam boxes!

  • Comment number 26.

    I'm one of the fortunate few, and playing around with it now; looks interesting tho' it's going to take some digging to see just how useful its functionalities are.

  • Comment number 27.

    The problem with all these wonderful new tools is that as soon as we have got around to making good use of one of them, then some bright software company comes along with with something better. So then we have to spend more money (There's no such thing as a free lunch...) and scramble up another steep learning curve - then persuade everyone else to join. As person who's had a free bus pass for several years, I've just discovered Facebook. What a great idea! Trouble is, most of my 'friends' are under 30 and are rather embarrassed that I want to discuss serious issues! By the time my wrinkly friends get around to Facebook, it will be SOOoo yesterday!

  • Comment number 28.

    To all those people who say "don't need it, don't want it"...

    I bet you once said it about mobile phones "why do I need one of those? If people want me they can call my landline and if I'm not there they can leave a message and I'll call them back"

    I bet you have a mobile now :o)

    Times they are a changing!!

  • Comment number 29.

    I am looking forward to seeing not what it can do now, but what it CAN do in the future. Its not what it is now that is going to matter a jot the history of it is out there, the future for this technology is open sourced and google are not keeping it to themselves. All it needs is another Bill Gates to come along and see something the Google team havent and find a niche for it and off it goes into the stratosphere. Dont dismiss it as being useless and you dont need it,and cant see a need for it because in the future its likely that this is going to take off in some manner no one expected. Biddows' post has laid it all out very well indeed, Thank you.

  • Comment number 30.

    I really don't know if Google Wave will take off or not. On the one hand, I don't underestimate the sheer 'power' Google has due to it being so damn good in those fields (the search engine, maps and translation software). I can see the advantages of some functionalities like including photos by drag and drop, but that's just a tweak. If they can integrate things like translation software into the system, then it has huge potential.

    On the other hand Google is going to be reliant upon people wanting to use it. If Google Waves is anything like GMail I won't touch it with a bargepole: now there is a product that is terrible, really truly appallingly unusable unless you set up Outlook to download your messages.

    I remain sceptical about the usefulness if seeing the text progress as you type: that reeks of being gimmicky to me and I would certainly turn that option off. As for collaborative software, well I have experience with people editing other people's work and it is not pretty.

    I'm willing to give it a go (and am rather peeved that I only just found out about it; I would have gladly participated in the test), and maybe as mentioned before the fact that it is Open Source will mean that some of its better features are integrated into software I currently like and use.

  • Comment number 31.

    It may interest you to know that the Google team are now accepting requests to become testers/bug reporters for the Wave.
    If you search GW it should lead you to one of the pages related to this and you can request an invite to join the test team.
    I used to think the same thing about Gmail, that is until I found gmail to be more stable and reliable than hotmail/live/yahoo etc etc. I do admit though to using it through a 3rd party and not web based. I especially like the fact that everything is kept forever until I clear it out, that has been a saviour to me on more than one occasion thanks to pc crashes and OS foul ups. Each to their own, I like it you don't :-) Fair enough.
    I hope you can get in on the ground floor of Wave testing, because the more sceptical a tester is the better, the more someone can pull it apart the better the software will be in the long run. Much better to have a tester who hates it rather than someone who is blinded by Google love who wouldn't dream of saying its rubbish!!

  • Comment number 32.

    I'm a sceptic when it comes to Google Wave, I can't see it being much of a winner, especially with the dominant forces of Facebook and MSN Messneger. Although I am yet to give it a try I have opened up discussions on my own discussions on Google Wave and I will wait to see how people take to Google Wave and I have a go myself before I can give a final appraisal

  • Comment number 33.


    Actually, they have incorporated the translation software into Google Wave - if you watch the full demo video, they show you how it works.

  • Comment number 34.

    Rory has done well to raise this discussion. Just look at the contrast in views regarding GMail! Though TwistyWillow should try to use GMail in a more tactical situation. Whenever you make a mouse click you seem to lose the interface your working on. Yahoo simply adds a new tab! GMail has been-down far more than Yahoo.
    I have to use both but know which one is more ergonomic! Thanks again for great grounds for debate Rory, please keep it up.

  • Comment number 35.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 36.

    For the layman to understand the use of google wave is quite difficult, many people seem to focus on the fact that it's just like an IM client or Facebook.

    The point is that the 'client' (the site thing he's receiving messages on and they're sending them from) is not 'google wave' in the same way that the facebook site is Facebook. For starters this is a *open standard* for communication in general, in other words it is a system any company or individual can pick up and write systems for, without ever needing to use any of google's systems at all.

    A good example is email, 'E-Mail' is not a single company, it is a huge conglomeration of hundreds of thousands of different companies and systems all tied together by standards and protocols. Unfortunately the idea of a 'standard' is rather abstract and difficult to grasp, but they are absolutely vital for almost every part of the internet.

    Essentially, this is not 'Google IM' or 'GMail 2.0', this is 'E-Mail 2.0' and it is very possible that soon it will render E-Mail and traditional proprietary IM services obsolete.

    That doesn't mean google will monopolise it though, any and all companies can use it and profit from it (or not), that's the beauty of standards.

  • Comment number 37.

    As a writer I am already using Google Wave on various projects I have going on right now. A friend of mine in the States is in several waves with me, proof reading work, making suggestions, commenting on grammar usage (she keeps say KISS to me because I can use old fashioned terms at times), and the such like, in real time. I start a wave with her and post the chapter / article into it and we go through it together in real time and make changes and make it as polished as we possibly can.

    As a total Geek I am enjoying all the cool things that one can do with Google Wave. At my web site I have a public wave embedded with a blog post (using two robots - 'Embeddy' to give me the code to embed the wave into the blog post and 'easypublic' to make the wave public access). I have sent waves to developers about getting Google Wave to work with Android-powered phones, wrote waves on how to do stuff to get friends and family up to speed.

    Why am I bothering? Because I really think that this is the start of Web 2.0 and all that W3C dream the internet could be. It is the first real application I have seen that utilises 'cloud computing' outside of a corporate intranet, and because, quite frankly, the old models of IM and Email have had their day and it is time we started working on the next generation of communication technologies, and right now, Google Wave is where it is at.

    Plus ALL the protocols are open and the coding behind Google Wave is 90% Open Source (the remaining 10% is all Google corporate imaging) - this means that even before the official launch of Google Wave into the wilds of the internet in the new year, there are several companies already developing their own Wave Servers to host their own Wave services on.

    I wish I had a venture capitalist as a drinking buddy right now because I would seriously consider being the one to launch a UK Google Wave service in the new year if I had the money to do it (or set up a consultancy to help UK ISPs add Google Wave to their services).

    Virgin Wave, anyone? Tiscali Wave? Sky BSB Wave? Windows Live Wave? You see where I am going with this? (because of non-advertising policies I thought I would mention several possible companies who would provide Wave services with their ISP's - all's fair that way)

    Even Philip Brennan Wave, if a nice venture capitalist became a drinking buddy...


  • Comment number 38.

    What a shame they've decided to scrap this project today. :-(
    All it needed to succeed was, as many users actually suggested, to integrate it with standard current email:i.e. allow it to receive and send from existing email addresses people have.

  • Comment number 39.

    I feel, as I had always, this THING was beyond my comprehension and use. As calmandhope said at 09:32am on 30 Sep 2009,"Got a feeling that this will be used by a very niche core of people, I for one can think of no reason why I'd ever need to use it."

    I tried my hand on it and did find it coming to no good use worth mentioned. This does not belittle the effort or the idea that went in behind this product.

    steelneil81 *had* a good point about the mobile phones, "Times they are a changing!!" Still, the two cannot be compared. Wave failed to proliferate the market due to its apparent uselessness!



  • Comment number 40.

    "despite its sheer cleverness, I'm still not entirely sure that it will take off."

    It looks like your intuition was right! Google have announced they'll be dropping Google Wave in the coming months.

    It was a very good service, and in a way it's a shame it didn't become more popular. But to be honest I think the demand for such a product really just wasn't there...


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites