Google Wave is a groundbreaking real-time collaborative tool that has the potential to be an ideal way for members of a group to work with one another. But it's not clear how useful it will be in the real world. It's the kind of tool that you want to use, but one that you may not be able to figure out how to fit into your work life.
In fact, Google Wave is one of those services that's nearly impossible to describe to those who haven't used it. One way to think of it is as a mashup of threaded e-mail conversations and instant messaging - on steroids. Rich content, including Google maps, interactive polling, videos and more, can be embedded in conversations (called waves). And the rich content is live and interactive. If you embed a Google map, for example, all participants in the conversation can use it as if they were on the Google Maps site.
All this makes for a kind of in-depth collaboration that's not possible with more traditional means of Internet communication. Theoretically, Google Wave can help groups share information, make decisions and take actions more quickly.
That's in theory, though. In practice, it's not clear what will happen, because traditional e-mail still rules most people's lives. At this point, Google Wave is still in a relatively tightly controlled, invitation-only beta. Given that it's free, however, once it becomes public - or if you're lucky enough to score an invite -- it's worth your while to test it out, if only for the "coolness" factor.
Diving into Google Wave
Google Wave's overall interface resembles a traditional e-mail client. Its window is divided into three panes: contacts and navigation on the left, a browsable list of all of your "waves" in the middle, and the actual wave you're involved in on the right.
To create a wave, you click the New Wave button at the top of the middle pane. You invite others to participate in the wave either by typing their names at the top of the right-hand pane or by dragging names there from your Contacts list. Then just begin typing.
Those whom you've invited to the wave don't have to be using Google Wave at the time you're typing the message - they will see the new wave the next time they log in. If they are already logged in when you create the wave, they will get a notice that a new wave has been created, and they will be able to see your message as you type it. Unlike with instant messages, participants see the message being composed live, as it is typed, rather than after the message has been finished and sent.
I'm not convinced this is a good thing. Most of us don't get a sentence completely right the first time - we commit typos, then go back and edit them, or we start with one idea, think better of it, erase it and start over again. With Google Wave, the recipients see that entire process.
Watching people type is about as productive and entertaining as watching paint dry. Watching them struggle with typos and editing is even worse. It's like watching sausage being made - you may like the end result, but the messy process of creation is not one that you want to witness up close and personal.
People respond to one another's messages, as in e-mail, and they can reply either to the entire group or privately to an individual. The thread, with people's responses appearing in the appropriate places in the conversation, is what makes up a wave.
You can format your messages using fonts, colors, highlights and so on, and you can send attachments and links as well. And, as mentioned before, you can embed other kinds of content directly in the wave -- by using Google Wave gadgets.
Gadgets and robots
If Google Wave ever takes off, the gadgets will be key to its success, because they can potentially integrate Google Wave with other existing services on the Web. For example, there is a voting gadget that lets people vote Yes, No or Maybe. There are also gadgets for conferencing, video-chatting, playing games, getting weather forecasts and more.
At this point, though, there aren't many gadgets available. And finding and installing them is problematic. When you click the gadget icon that appears when you create a message in a wave, all you get is a dialog box asking you to type in a URL. It doesn't let you browse through a gadget library or preview gadgets. So you'll have to find each gadget on your own, copy its URL, and then paste it into the box.
In the existing Google Wave preview, there is another way to add a gadget - by viewing a Google-supplied wave that has a little more than half a dozen gadgets. But there are more gadgets being created by third-party developers, and for now, there's no central way to find them the way there is to find, say, add-ons for Firefox.
In addition to gadgets, you can also add "robots," which can participate in waves almost as if they were human participants. You add a robot to your contacts list, and then when you want it to perform an action, you add it as a participant to your wave, in the same way you add a human participant.
For example, there's a robot called "Bloggy" that you can use to publish a wave to your Blogger blog. Another robot performs an automatic search of the Guardian newspaper and displays the results it finds, including headlines and links to the articles. To use it, you add email@example.com to your contacts, invite it to a wave, and then add the text "Search term ?guardian" to a message in the wave (using the words you want to search for instead of search term), and it will perform the search and display the results.