Posted by Matt Perez on 10/15/2009 in mosaic , interaction , google wave , browser , access
There's a lot of confusion out there about Wave. We're like the proverbial blind men trying to figure out the elephant. The people describing Wave as "like" something else are, in my opinion, missing one of the key things about Wave and what makes it a radical game-changer.
Wave is not "like" anything that came before it. The same way that Mosaic, the original web browser, was not "like" anything that came before it. Mosaic's impact was on how it changed access to distributed content. Wave's impact will be on interaction and collaboration.
First, let's take a little step back, to ancient history. Then we'll come back to the present and, finally, we'll sketch out the future.
Mosaic and Access
I first heard of Mosaic in late 1993, just before the holiday break. During the break I read what little there was about it and the two existing web server ("HTTPS daemons), one from CERN and the other from NCSA. When I got back from the break I dowloaded the whole enchilada from the NCSA and got my first taste of Mosaic and its rendering of the web. My brain got rewired on the spot.
The possibilities became endless. It was "obvious," even back then that the browser was a game changer. Up till then users had to know where things were in order to access them. Then they had to know how to use the right client for each specific protocol (e.g., Gopher, FTP, Usenet, etc). Mosaic did away with all that.
The browser brought a much higher level of access to resources throughout the Internet. Regular folks could look at this stuff without knowing Gopher from FTP. This in turn encouraged legions of people to create more content that could be easily accessed via the amazing browser. The rest, as they say, is history.
Wave and Collaboration
As soon as I watched the Google Wave introductory video I felt my brain getting rewired again. (If you haven't yet, go watch the video and then come back to read the rest of this post.)
Wave integrates all the modalities of interaction we have today into one single framework. It would be tempting to dismiss it as "just" a combination of email, IM, etc. But this is definitely the case where the whole is bigger, much bigger, than the sum of its parts. In the same way that the browser was much more than "just" a front-end for http://, gopher://, ftp://, etc.
In a Wave-enabled world, users won't think very much about which modality to use in a conversation. The appropriate one will be used as needed. If the wave participants (surfers?) are around at the same time, then the wave will look almost like an instant message chat; at the other extreme, if you're the only one in the wave at 3 AM, you'll create email-like messages for the others in the wave. This is NOT to say that Wave is IM-on-steroids or email-on-steroids. It is a superset of those and other modes of collaboration that we have not even dreamed of, yet.
Steroids Are Bad for You
It bears repeating that the "x-on-steroids" approach is bad for you because it puts blinders on you. Pundits (and even Google) are describing Wave as email-on-steroids, IM-on-steroids and bulletin board-on-steroids. That's as far off the mark as describing a car as a buggy-on-steroids.
If you think of a car as a buggy-on-steroids then you are still thinking of traveling short distances, just faster. You'll miss the need for cross-country highways; you won't see how much of an impact the car will have on families and communities; you'll be completely surprised by how far people will commute to work; etc. In other words, you'll miss out on a lot of opportunities.
For a more recent example, Lotus was completely blindsided by the web browser. They didn't realize how it changed the playing field in a way that made Lotus Notes obsolete. They thought of the web as a poor-man's version of Notes and this made it impossible for them to understand what was coming at them.
In the Future…
I have no idea what the future will bring, exactly. I'll leave that to Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle who do a pretty good job of it in their Web Squared paper.
But I can offer one particular scenario to sketch out how I think events might unfold. Take Facebook, for example.
If Facebook were being built today, it would be implemented on top of Wave. Mark Zuckerberg would still see the opportunity to exploit the fact "friend relationships online actually constitute a generalized social graph." He would still make a big, successful business out of it. But it would not be the walled garden that it is today (I think of it as AOL 2.0).
So the question is how will Facebook and other established businesses like it deal with Wave? They can either join the Federation (pun intended) or try to continue with their current architecture.
If history repeats itself, they will look down at Wave as a poor-man's Facebook. They'll "just add features" to appease their users. They'll continue on this path until they become irrelevant. Like Lotus Notes and the horse-and-buggy.
Twitter-Induced Déjà Vu?
Things are moving fast around Wave. Very fast.
This is almost tachyonic: the future was demoed last night!
A Word about Modalities
People use the wrong modality all the time. Just think of those people who leave long, long, long voice messages. They should be sending you an email instead or writing the whole up in a wiki. Instead, they leave a voice message that you have to listen to sequentially and cannot respond to in any sensible way.
In the other direction, I am always blown away by people who send me email to ask me to join a voice conference in 10 minutes. Then they call me five minutes in the conference to ask me if I am going to join. They should have, instead, call me or text me or even IM me. Email is the wrong modality for time-sensitive messages.
In fact, today people use one modality, namely email, for things that it is not well-fit for: longitudinal conversations, sharing snippets, "blogging," etc. We make do with what we have. But we are also limited by these tools.
I attended a presentation on “Inbox Zero” by Merlin Mann and he made a great observation about all those email chain jokes and Snopes items you get from non-tech savvy people: Forwarding emails is like blogging for old people.
This comment appears alongside her very perceptive post, "The Point You're Missing about Google Wave."
In a comment to the Web Squared paper, Benjamin Wells writes,
In my view, discussion is half the prize, half the battle, half the problem, half the reward. It should be more. We need web facilities that mediate discussion better. For example, I don’t think articles + comments (or better methods now in use) will be seen as paradigmatic in a few years or Web n.0 generations.
What's the Big Deal?
In addition to obvious stuff, here are some of the innovations that Wave brings to the party,
- Real-time: You can see what others are typing, character-by-character.
- Symbolic: This is what makes the playback feature possible. This also means that waves will accumulate a ton of fine-grained attention and gesture data.
- Persistent: Which means that new metadata will be available for analysis, new applications and to encourage the maturing of the Web Squared.
- Federated: Multiple implementations can compete but users and the growth of the system won't be impeded by this.
- Security: Go with the server that implements the level of security you want.
- Embeddability: Waves can be embedded on any blog or website.
- Applications and Extensions: It is a development platform as well.
- Wiki functionality: Anything written within a Google Wave can be edited by anyone else, because all conversations within the platform are shared. Thus, you can correct information, append information, or add your own commentary within a developing conversation.
- Open source: Anybody can build first-class extensions and robots to play in the system.
By themselves, many of these features are nothing new. But in combination they make an astounding platform.
It's too early to write a summary re: Google Wave. We're all going to participate in writing its future history.
Will you? Or, do you think it is just a fad? Or just a hyped up bulletin board? Let's talk about it... in a wave!