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May 28, 2009

Initial reaction to Google Wave: Maybe transformative

I’m excited about Google Wave, based on TechCrunch’s description of it, and my own fervid projections of what I’d like it to be. If I’m understanding it correctly — and the likelihood is that I’m not … take that as a serious warning — this could be bigger than Facebook and MySpace in terms of how it terraforms the Net.

Social networking sites were hugely important because they addressed a huge lack. The Web knows how pages are linked, but it knows nothing about the relationships among groups of people. SNS’s added that layer. And the smartest of the social network sites treated themselves as platforms on which other apps could be built. Google Wave goes back to the Internet’s most basic layer: people talking with one another. While there are obviously lots of apps and protocols enabling the back and forth gesticulating we call “conversation,” there’s been nothing underneath them all that recognizes that they’re all different ways of doing the same basic thing: IM doesn’t know about email doesn’t know about Usenet doesn’t know about chat doesn’t know about Facebook messaging doesn’t know about Twitter. Each of these ways humans have invented to talk with one another is treated as its own separate app, as different as playing a zombie-killing game and marking up x-rays. In fact, many years ago, a few of us tried to generate interest in what we called threadsML, which we hoped (vainly) would be a standard way for conversations to be shared, stored, and moved around.

Wave, as I understand it, is a platform underneath the multiple modalities of human conversation. It doesn’t care if you’re emailing, IMing, or throwing photos at one another. The structural object is the conversation; the means of conversation is just a detail. [Note: I think.] The fact that you said “No way!” using IM when talking in realtime with a friend who’s reading the same email thread with you no longer will mean your expostulation will have to be treated as a separate app, just as when talking in the real world, we don’t count our hand gestures as something apart from the conversation just because we make them with our hands instead of with our mouths.

So far, Google is (unsurprisingly) doing the right and smart thing, opening it up to developers early on, using the open XMPP protocol, and open sourcing the Google Wave Federation Protocol. If this is to be more than just another app for talking, Google has to treat it like an open platform. The first sign of lock-in will scare away the very folks Google needs if Wave is to be more than just a shiny new set of tin cans and string for those who want to talk with other Google users.

There’s lots that could go wrong. And my understanding of Wave is so preliminary that I’m sorry to be so far out on the limb. But I’ve been waiting on this limb for a long time, frustrated that conversations are splintered by medium when they should be joined by topic and social group. Wave is the first thing I’ve seen that offers a genuine hope for getting this right by starting with the most fundamental social object we have: people talking with one another.

I think.

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