New "Wave" E-Mailing

Google Wave
One of the most interesting experiments in electronic communication I've ever seen is coming from Google. It's called Wave. It's real-time e-mail. What that means is that as you're typing a message in Wave, either a new message or a reply to one you've got, the person you're writing to can see what you're typing as you type it.

Sounds awful, right?

You don't have to use Wave in this real-time way. It also works as a standard e-mail app. What's really different about Wave is that if you're replying to a message and the person you're replying to happens to be online and sees that their message thread is getting updated, they can jump into the conversation at that point, and change what was an email conversation into, functionally, an instant message conversation or a chat.

You're still thinking: this is crazy. I know you are. You don't want to be interrupted. Life is too frothy already. Well, you're right, it is. Life is busy. But Wave really is different. It changes the way you look at e-mail. You no longer see a message as a static thing. You write differently knowing that your message can become an IM at any moment.

It works. If you're responding to a message and the other person comes online and wants to change that dialog into a real-time chat, you can resolve whatever it is you were discussing right then, and clear the conversation from your inbox for good.

Another coworker of mine is also on the Wave preview, and our experience with it was illustrative. I started to send him a message, writing as if it was an e-mail. He saw I was writing to him, and chimed in before I was done. We had a little on-screen dialog and agreed to collaborate on a story. In the message itself, we wrote the story together, each writing our own thoughts while we were watching the other contribute as well. Wave helped us do our job more quickly and efficiently than any other system we've ever used.

There were some snags. The message got large and there was one time with my coworker was typing hoping I would respond, but I didn't see his message coming in since I was further down in the document. And in other Wave messages with multiple users at once, the multiple streams of updating text got overwhelming; I found it best to step away from the message until it calmed down, so I could later reader it at my own pace.

Wave is about more than real-time e-mail. It's also a new platform for messaging in which all replies and conversations around a message happen in the messages themselves, not in copies that are sent all over the Net, as in regular e-mail. Multiple recipients of a message can talk within the message, and nobody will get out of sync.

Wave right now is still closed to most users, and everything I've seen so far is experimental. Many of the features in the preview I have access to don't work. And Wave isn't yet connected to other communication systems, like regular e-mail, which means that the only people I can Wave with are other people on Wave as well. So we don't yet know what using wave will be like once it gets crowded like e-mail, and we haven't yet seen how spammers will attack it. Also, the technology behind Wave is far more demanding on servers and the Internet itself than regular e-mail or chat, so we don't know if the technology will work at Scale.

But Wave really is a contemporary re-think of e-mail. A lot of people won't like it. A lot of people didn't like e-mail either when it first showed up, nor IM, or Facebook or Twitter. But people will find real uses for Wave or whatever it becomes, and it's one of the most interesting new takes on communication I've ever seen. When it comes out later this year, give it a fair shake. Even if you don't like it, it will make you think differently about e-mail.

By Rafe Needleman