Archive for November, 2009

Catching the Wave: the Nuts and Bolts

November 30, 2009

Okay, most of you probably don’t care so much about the open-source project. You want to know what this tool looks like, and how to use it. Here are the rough basics of the initial Google Wave client, for those who haven’t seen it yet.

This picture shows the typical layout of the Google Wave client:

A typical view of the current Google Wave client

A typical view of the current Google Wave client

There are four major pieces —

  • On the top left is the Navigation pane. This includes your Inbox — the list of waves that you’re involved with — as well as less-used groupings like your Trash, Spam and so on. It also has separate lists for saved Searches — lists of waves based on particular criteria like tags — and Folders. (Yes, Google has knuckled under and included Folders, which they’ve never done for Gmail. I believe this has to do with the way Tags work in Wave, which doesn’t let you use them quite the way you do in Gmail.)
  • The bottom left is your Contacts: the people you know in Wave. This can get a little subtle, but in general it works like you expect a contact list to work. It is integrated with your Gmail Contacts, but includes both “My Contacts” (the people you’ve expressly put on the list) and “All Contacts” (a wider group of people you’ve talked to), so it may appear larger than you expect.
  • The middle pane is a list of waves, and intentionally looks a lot like a normal email inbox. By default, this lists the conversations in your Inbox — the Inbox consists mainly of waves that you were invited into, or started, or include a group that you are in, plus other waves that you have read. But if you select another search or folder, it will show that instead of your Inbox. (This picture shows my waves with the tag “ArtOfConv”.)
  • Finally, the right-hand pane shows the currently-selected wave, in reading mode. You can switch over to editing mode instead; this looks almost the same, but replaces the toolbar (which currently shows buttons like “Reply” and “Playback”) with editing controls instead.

Those are the basics, as you will see them out of the box. There are some more bits and pieces that will show up sometimes — for example, pings show up in a “minimized” form along the top, or you can open multiple waves at once — but most of the time, you’ll probably be seeing it more or less like this.

Next: Sprechen sie Jargon; or, what do all these words mean?

The Vexations of Text

November 28, 2009

Catching the Wave has been on hiatus this week, due to a combination of me being off at a Microsoft seminar all week and not really wanting to post while everybody’s busy with Thanksgiving.  It’ll resume next week.

In the meantime, though, I commend to you this article from siderea on LiveJournal.  She makes an excellent point that, while text is a more powerfully expressive medium for communication than it’s often given credit for, there are some essential conversational subtleties that are difficult or impossible to convey this way.

I’m curious about what people think about this, and particularly whether you think that there is any difference for up-tempo / synchronous modes of communication.  IMO she’s entirely correct for slower modes like LiveJournal, but I wonder if the extra subtleties of timing play into up-tempo.  For example, I’ve found that pauses in an IM conversation can be fraught with meaning; what other details are available there, and how much (if at all) can they help with the limitations she points out?

Catching the Wave: The Tool and the Project

November 19, 2009

So the first question everyone asks is, what the heck *is* Wave? There’s been a lot of contradictory opinion about that, but the next several articles will try to provide a little perspective.

You have to keep in mind that Wave is two very different things, right out of the gate. First, it’s a new tool from Google, that is currently in an early alpha release. It’s buggy as all get out, and we’ll talk about that more later, but it’s improving rapidly. It is in a pure invitation-only mode right now, as most Internet tools start out — you have to get someone you know to give you an invitation. Those invites were rare as diamonds in the beginning (thanks to Michael Kleber for getting me an early one), but successive rounds of growth have made them a little easier to get.

Second, it’s a new open protocol. Google is trying to make something really new and different here: a new online ecosystem that is as pervasive and important as email or IM or the Web. They know that they can’t do that on their own: plain and simply, they’re not that deeply trusted. So they are fostering efforts to build alternative versions of these ideas, and to standardize server-to-server communications: the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach. These other visions will come both in the form of open-source projects and commercial software — for an example of the latter, check out this announcement that Novell Pulse is planning to federate with Wave. (Thanks to Michael Kleber for pointing this out to me.)

So keep in mind that the current thing people will usually point to as “Wave” is just Google’s first-draft realization of these ideas. It was released a bit hastily (and perhaps a bit too early), and has lots of flaws, but this client is just scratching the surface here. There’s a lot of evolution yet to come here, both from Google and from other folks.

One thing Wave is not is email. In my opinion, Google did themselves a disservice by spreading the word that Wave is what email would be if it had been invented today, because it leads people to think of Wave as a new version of email. Put that out of your mind: the only thing Wave really has in common with email is that they are both conversational tools for sharing and collaboration. (Well, and they both have things called “Inbox”.) Wave has elements of email, but it also has elements of IM, forums and lots of other things.

An implication of that is that there actually isn’t all that much new about Wave, and a lot of people are dinging it for that. But that misses the point. Wave isn’t about radical new ideas, so much as it’s about a new way of combining a lot of old ideas. You’ll often hear it described as “Forums plus IM”, or “liveblogging plus email”, or something like that. It has elements of all of those, but the combination is what makes it interesting.

The discussion below will mostly be talking about Google Wave — that is, the initial Google client/server version. But the ideas here go far beyond Google, and much of the potential lies in what folks will do with both their tool and the larger architecture.

Next: The Nuts and Bolts

Catching the Wave: Prologue

November 18, 2009

This is a personal introduction from Justin. Many hands contributed to the following series — it was drafted in Wave itself, with lots of back-and-forth discussion — but this bit is my own perspective, so the reader can take my biases into account.

A month or two ago, thanks to my friend Michael, I got an invite to Google Wave; since then, I’ve been playing with it fairly heavily, getting a sense of what it is and what it does. It’s time to talk about that in detail. Those of you who have been curious about Wave, this is the series for you. This is going to be really, really long and in-depth, far moreso than most of the glossy overviews in the press, but I’m going to break it into lots of little articles on particular topics, one per day. I encourage you to share the URL around — this subject goes right to the heart of what this blog is about, and there’s a lot to say here.

(BTW: no, I don’t have any more invites. Sorry, but they went pretty fast, even limiting myself to people who I knew would dig into it seriously. If you ask around, they seem to be getting easier to obtain now.)

Disclaimer upfront: as many of you know, I’ve spent the past two years of my life mainly consumed by trying to build a system called CommYou. That was largely the inspiration for this blog: CommYou was all about fostering productive multi-tempo conversation online. It had a lot of cool ideas — it’s basically my attempt to create the conversation system I’ve always wanted. But it’s never made it past early alpha, because my standards are high: it’s actually in the middle of the second major rewrite now.

So you’ll understand my mixed feelings when I say that the most concise way to describe Wave is, “CommYou, only more ambitious”.

That’s over-simplified, of course: Wave isn’t trying to do *precisely* what CommYou does. But along the way, they wound up coming to remarkably similar conclusions about how you structure multi-tempo conversation in order to achieve serious collaboration. In particular, the look and feel of their conversation system, and the framing of how you present things to the user, are awfully close to CommYou’s.

The result is that I’m just now getting over a sense of frustration at having been “scooped”. The CommYou project is pretty well dead — I’m not dumb enough to try to compete head-to-head against a serious Google project.

That said, the purpose of CommYou was to produce my ideal conversation system. Wave currently has lots of flaws (which will be discussed at considerable length in later articles), but it comes closer than anything I’ve seen to date. So as I get past the frustration, I’m turning into quite a serious Wave evangelist — if I seem to complain a lot, it’s mostly because I can see how great this system will eventually be, and I’m impatient. This is the realization of a lot of the ideas I’ve had for some time now, and I’m hoping to see it evolve into a truly great system.

Hence, this series. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing Wave in enormous detail, focusing less on the basic “what it looks like” (which you can find lots of articles about), and more on what’s really going on here, what Wave is good at, what it’s bad at, what you should be using it for, and particularly why this is going to become an absolutely indispensible tool once they get the bugs ironed out.

So join in, spread the word, ask questions and provide your insights, as we dive into Wave (which shall, henceforth, be the subject of altogether too many mixed metaphors).

As the rest of this series gets posted, I’ll be updating this article with links to the later ones. So bookmark this page, and it will serve as the table of contents for the rest.

Credits: lots of people have helped me with this series of articles. I’d like to especially thank Michael Kleber, Chad Bergeron, Alex Feinman and Anna Bradley, who have done much to help crystallize my thinking, as well as Jessica Polito, my wife Jane for proofreading, backboarding, and generally putting up with me, and Charley Sumner for organizing the first serious Wave I participated in that was about something other than self-referential navel-gazing about Wave itself.

Next time: okay, so what do we mean by “Wave”?

Table of Contents


What is Wave?