Google Wave: the beginner's guide

Now open to all - here's what you need to know

Google Wave

Google started sending out invites to its Google Wave collaboration service back in September. But the search giant now believes the service is ready for prime time and can now be accessed by all.

Wave is a revolutionary new way to keep in contact with people and collaborate on documents and could completely replace email.

The theory is that email (which has been with us for over four decades, believe it or not) is beginning to look a little antiquated, especially when we could be using the features of Web 2.0 with 'waves'.

On that basis, Google plans to release this new system under an open source licence, so that other developers and companies can create their own wave services, and eventually help everyone to replace their current email solutions.

What exactly are these 'waves' that you're talking about?

A wave is best compared to a conversation in an instant messenger, but in the case of a wave, you can chat to yourself or to a whole group of people.

Each wave contains a subwave called a 'wavelet', which focuses on a particular aspect of the main wave, and can be manipulated in much the same way. This means one wave can branch out into a number of other waves, but keep all the original associations.

This may not sound like a killer feature from the outset, but if you subscribe to a mailing list or want to bracket multiple wavelets within the same project wave, then this is a much more elegant solution.

Isn't much of this kind of thing already included in instant messengers such as Google Talk?

By coincidence, waves are actually built on the same Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) that Google Talk uses, but they deal with much more than just instant messaging.

Each wavelet contains entries, known as 'blips', posted by the various collaborators, extension apps, or even automated robots you converse with. These can contain anything, including text and video, and mean that your wave becomes diverse and dynamic, with content that's constantly updated, either from an external source or your fellow collaborators.

I heard somewhere that waves are part of a 'live' protocol?

This is because everybody sees each other's keystrokes in real time. That way we avoid a common problem you'll no doubt have encountered while instant messaging, where one person posts what someone else is about to say, or answers an older question.

By seeing each other's input in real time, you can ensure that responses don't overlap, while being assured that the other collaborators are responding to your input. You can also reply to a particular blip rather than each entry being listed in chronological order.

So where does the document collaboration come in?

A document, in wave terms, contains the content of each blip. You slowly build up and manipulate the various blips to produce in-depth conversations or collaborative papers. You can then embed your wave document into a webpage, so it can act like an interactive and automatically updating wiki. It's also possible to export everything into a final file for printing or sending to your fellow collaborators.

Couldn't it get very messy and confusing, what with everyone doing stuff at once?

It's no more difficult to manage a wave than a Google document or a traditional wiki, and as the creator, you have most control. Once you grant users edit rights, you don't need to approve each change they make. However, unlike these existing methods of collaboration, you can see edits in real time, and can roll them back on a particular section without affecting content added since the change in question.

You can also decide whether or not to make your work public from the outset, or you can publish the final document once you feel it's complete enough.

But won't we miss important tools such as spell-checkers?

You are less likely to suffer from spelling mistakes or grammatical errors than you would with a wiki, thanks to Google's innovative natural language tools. These adapt depending on the context of your writing, and pick the most likely suggestion when it compares against the text that came before.

This means you could type "I have bean eating beens" and have this automatically corrected to the sentence you expected as you type, without the need for any further intervention.

How do I embed other documents and files into this system?

Waves have full support for you to drag and drop files, text snippets or any web content. This will automatically be added to your document as a blip. This makes things much more interactive. As expected, you can also embed other Google services such as calendars, YouTube video, Picasa images and so on into your waves.

What if I no longer want someone to collaborate on my document?

As a document creator, only the people you explicitly specify as collaborators can alter your work. You can remove collaborators at any time and cycle back through the changes they might have made. These features make waves a little more robust for enterprises who may find that disgruntled employees sabotage work before leaving.

However, its usefulness isn't limited to big business – it will also come in handy for you if someone in the group of friends that you're collaborating with disagrees with the general consensus, and starts changing things in their own way.

Before I ditch Google Docs forever, you mentioned extensions?

Google has open-sourced the open-transport layer as well as large swathes of the main code, so developers can build their own extensions using the Wave API. One such extension enables you to embed Twitter feeds into a document, thereby creating a 'twave' and enabling real-time communication over another protocol while still integrating seamlessly into the interface. This can then be extended by programming robots.

Ooh, robots? Tell me more…

Developers can program robots that create blips and respond in particular ways to content in other waves and external websites. They can even respond to you sending them messages, which means you can ask your robot for the latest sports scores and be told instantly.

The API provides Java and Python bindings, so if you found Nick Veitch's tutorials on building a Python bot particularly interesting, you'll be able to apply your skills here to integrate your favourite services. To include your robot in any wave, just add it as a collaborator, and off you go.

But doesn't this mean we're entrusting even more of our data to Google?

Initially, Google will be the only wave provider, but it's offering all potential providers complete use of its Google Wave Federation Protocol (GWFP). This would allow waves from other providers to communicate seamlessly with each other and use security measures such as Transport Layer Security (TLS) and certificate authentication.

We might therefore see other providers spring up, so you could potentially entrust your data to anyone, and move between providers when you choose.

This all sounds awesome, but will it be included in Google Chrome OS?

We can only speculate at this point, as Google has been particularly vague about the features that Chrome OS will have.

In our opinion, it's hard to see Google not including a technology that it's pushing as a new standard in some form or another, especially as Chrome OS could turn out to be a flagship product for the company.

If it isn't, then you needn't worry as the protocol will be cross-platform compatible (through the browser, naturally), as this tends to be important when you're trying to establish a new web standard.

Where can I find out more about waves and what they could do for me?

TechRadar has a piece called Google Wave: what you need to know. There's also a comprehensive guide to waves in this excellent blog post at Mashable. If you're interested in developing extensions or robots for this new platform, head to the Google Wave API pages.


First published in Linux Format Issue 126

Liked this? Then check out Hands on: Google Wave review

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