For a company founded and still largely run by a bunch of engineers, Google apparently knows a lot about human nature. Just as they did with Gmail, the Googlers have made their newest product invitation-only. You can’t just use Google Wave; you have to be chosen. It’s like Willy Wonka and the golden ticket. By the time I finally got my Wave invitation, I actually felt grateful. In some part of my brain, I really believed that instead of using a browser-based communications app, I was attending a totally excellent party.
I guess I should be grateful, since Google Wave is both free and pretty cool. Its main defect is that it’s almost impossible to explain. Google spokespeople have described Wave as what e-mail would look like if it had been invented now instead of 40 years ago. Keep in mind that until the mid-1990s, when e-mail went mainstream, the network environment was very different. Bandwidth was a scarce resource. You had your poky modem and liked it. Which is why e-mail was created in the image of the paper-postal system: tiny squirts of electronic text. But now we’re rolling in bandwidth, and power-wise, my phone could make a PDP-10 cry. Google has server farms the size of actual farms. And yet we’re still passing one another little electronic notes. Google Wave rips up that paradigm and embraces the power of the networked, collaborative, postpaper world. Waves aren’t static; they’re active and malleable. When you send out a wave, you create a virtual object shared by you and the person or people you send it to. You can type in it, and so can everybody else who’s on the wave it’s stored on a central server instead of passed from PC to PC like e-mail. Everybody sees what everybody else is typing as they type it. Everybody can edit what everybody else writes. With regular e-mail, the simple act of collaborating on a list can turn into a nightmare chain, crawling with indents and chevrons and worse. Wave keeps everything tidy. And it’s not about just text. You can put pictures in a wave, plus richer, more dynamic stuff: movies, games, polls, maps. You can publish your wave to a blog. You can embed it in a website, where it retains its editable, collaborative waviness. And this is just beta stuff. Like everything else these days, Wave is a platform. Google is encouraging developers to write apps that will make waves do even more. Google Wave is, in short, a remarkably full-featured collaboration and communication tool, powerful enough for enterprise customers and easy enough for civilians. It’s also a warning shot across the bow of pretty much every software company anywhere. It’s amazing how many people’s grills Google is getting up into with this single product. It’s real time like AIM and Twitter . It’s social and shares media, like Facebook. Anybody who makes an e-mail client or collaboration software should be paying attention to Wave. This is vintage Google: give away a product that does stuff your competitors charge money for, thereby burnishing your public image and, at the same time, sapping your competitors’ will to live. But Wave isn’t actually an e-mail killer. In practice, it’s more like an insanely rich IM client. E-mail is asynchronous; you can wait an hour or a week to answer it. But because Wave operates in real time, it demands immediate attention like an IM or a phone call or, for that matter, a crying baby. When Wave is up, it’s hard to focus on anything else. That isn’t a defect, but it does narrow the scope of its usefulness. Getting more information right away isn’t always the most efficient way to work. Nevertheless, this is Google’s best shot at a ubiquitous mainstream product since Google Maps in 2005. Google is in an interesting phase. Basically it has all the money in the world, which it has used to hire the smartest people in the world, whom it has unleashed in an apparently only minimally managed orgy of R&D. As a result, it’s been spinning out cult hits and noble failures at a furious rate: Orkut , Picasa, Knol, Docs, SketchUp, OpenSocial, Chrome and Android. But it hasn’t produced a lot of homegrown category killers. It’s not that Google’s products aren’t innovative. They’re just not friendly enough or sexy enough, or they’re replacements for something that wasn’t particularly broken in the first place. This can’t go on forever. We’re so used to Google’s throwing things at us for free, we forget that it’s a public company that’s supposed to be making money for its shareholders. Google has two basic ways of monetizing a product: serving ads on it as with YouTube and Gmail or using it to bring people into the Google ecosystem, where they can eventually become users of Google products that Google does serve ads on. Like YouTube or Gmail. It’s not clear yet which way Wave is going to go. But it’s definitely going places and not just to Brazil. It won’t replace e-mail, but it deserves a spot in any office warrior’s arsenal, especially warriors who work in recession-starved offices that can’t shell out for pricey software packages . And it comes with eight free Google Wave invitations. Even if Wave hasn’t made me more productive, it’s definitely made me more popular. Download TIME’s iPhone and BlackBerry application.
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