Last week I finally got access to Google Wave. Google's reinvention of e-mail, chat and document collaboration all in one tool. Although the application is still fairly buggy (although also very usable!), I must say I like it. And I think I will like it even more as more and more people get accounts. It's like with any messenger-type of applications, they're only useful if other people are on it as well.
Instead of e-mail conversations, in Google Wave you have waves. A wave can have one or more participants, not all of which have to be human, they can also be bots. A bot can add additional functionality to a wave. The "emoticony" bot (email@example.com), for instance, automatically turns textual smilies, e.g. :) into pictures. More useful are Watexy (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Syntaxy (email@example.com) that add Latex-style formulas and programming language syntax high-lighting. Bots are simply contacts, that you add on a e-mail/wave address basis.
(Syntaxy and Watexy in action)
A wave consists of "blips", equivalent to an e-mail message. Blips can be edited by all participants (even simultaneously). Each blip shows who has been editing that blip, and as people are editing all other participants see the changes happening in real-time.
If you add a special participant to a wave: firstname.lastname@example.org, the wave becomes public, i.e. everybody can get access to it. Public waves can be found by searching for "with:public". However, as more and more people discover this feature, this search query (which is updated live), is a real-time web nightmare. So it's probably better to add a few keywords to the query to further restrict the search.
Update: "with:public" does not work as it used to anymore, as a replacement use "group:email@example.com".
The numbers in green next to the wave indicate the number of changes since you last visited the wave (if ever). If you select a public wave, you are added to the list of participants and the wave is put in your inbox so that you receive further updates to it.
In addition to bots, you can also add widgets to a wave that enable additional functionality such as polls, maps and so on, but to be frank, I haven't used widgets a lot yet.
So, how to use it.
Every time a new communication tool is invented we have to figure out how to use it effectively. Now that many of us have finally figured out Twitter, the next big thing is Wave.
Browsing around the public waves, I see a lot of waves with titles like "The Scala Wave", "The Dutch wave", "The Python wave", i.e. people use it as a tiny real-time message board. It doubt these waves really scale, though. Sure, they're fun for the first few minutes, having a real-time discussion with people around the world. But as a wave goes beyond a couple dozen blips, it becomes kind of a mess. The question is what the granularity of wave should really be. A wave per country, city, household, project, sub-project, task, conversation, person, thought? It's still to be figured out.
One wave for a single conversation seems to work well. Similar to an e-mail or chat conversation. I also imagine aggregating information about a topic works well. After covering a conference I just went to, together with a number of other people on twitter, I can imagine that Google Wave may be an excellent tool for that. But if there should be a wave per conference or per session, remains to be found out. I for one, can't wait to experiment with this during the next conference I go to, provided that more people will have Wave accounts by then.
We also still have to figure out if Wave is really good for public conversations. The firstname.lastname@example.org is implemented as a hack, albeit a cool one. Whether this will work and scale as more distributed wave servers come into existence remains to be seen.
Either way, Google Wave is cool and I hope it will one day replace my e-mail.