Google Wave. Huh. What Is It Good For?

Maybe you've heard about Google Wave. It's the hot new product from Google, the one that's going to change the world and replace e-mail and transform us all into cyborgs with the power to travel into the future and save mankind. Or something.

Google Wave is now in a limited beta test, being used by 100,000 people, by invitation only. It's apparently fantastic stuff, really super-impressive. There's just one teeny-tiny problem—nobody can explain what Wave is or how it works. Not even the people who created Google Wave seem able to really explain why anyone needs or wants it. Sure, some have tried, like Ars Technica. Google itself has posted this 80-minute video tutorial.

But see, if you need an 80-minute video to explain your product, well, that's a bit of a problem. Google says Wave is a tool that lets you "communicate and collaborate in real time." But what does that mean exactly? Because at one level, the idea of something that lets you "communicate and collaborate in real time" is not such a big deal. A chalkboard lets you do that, for example. So does a telephone. Heck, a pad of paper and a box of crayons can do that.

It's so bad that someone has created a site called Easier to Understand Than Wave, where Google Wave's inscrutability is compared to the difficulty of understanding things like cardiothoracic surgery, Chinese telegraph code, and Sarah Palin. Anil Dash, a well-known tech blogger, calls Google Wave "a Segway for e-mail."

I'm not yet a Google Wave beta-tester, though I hope to be soon. Despite all the complaining, from what I've seen, Wave seems like a really cool piece of software and a promising platform upon which other developers will end up building useful applications. As a journalist, I'm especially interested in technologies that could change the way we tell stories and distribute information to readers. I think Google Wave could become part of the way we deliver the news.

But let's step back. The basic idea behind Google Wave is that e-mail, as it exists today, is totally lame and needs to die and be replaced by something better.

Some people describe Wave by saying that it's what e-mail should be. Or it's e-mail on steroids. Or it's what e-mail would be if you were inventing it today, from scratch, rather than starting with the traditional notion of e-mail, which is now several decades old—and which is itself based on a really old-fashioned notion of delivering paper envelopes by hand from a post office to a mailbox.

All that stuff about New Age e-mail may be true, but another way to think of Google Wave is that this is what happens when you put a bunch of brainiac nerd engineers in a lab and let them go crazy.

That's pretty much what Google did. The product came out of a skunkworks team in Australia, and it appears that Google management didn't let anyone interfere with what they were doing.

Wave combines e-mail, instant messaging, and word processing and editing; plus, you can upload and share photos, videos, and other media. Two of us can send messages back and forth; that conversation is called a "wave." We can invite others to join our wave, and those people can roll back to see what we've talked about before they joined.

Google Wave brings a lot of new terminology with it. That term "wave," meaning a conversation, is not the same as "Wave," the overall platform. There's also something called a "wavelet," which is part of wave, and an "embedded wave," which is a wave that you embed into some other Web site. Each message in a wave is called a "blip." There are also "documents" and "extensions" and "gadgets" and (gasp) "robots."

That's right—robots.

As I said, this is what happens when engineers are left unsupervised.

And this is a classic Google project. Google famously lets its engineers spend 20 percent of their time tinkering around with side projects. Google also famously puts half-baked ideas out into the world and then waits to see if anything comes of them. The entire Google corporate culture is built on attention-deficit disorder.

Did I mention that Google Wave has robots? Robots! How cool is that? If the engineers had been left alone for another six months they'd have put in Jedi Knights and Klingons, too.

This is why Google represents the antithesis of Apple. With Apple, it's all about simplicity. I once joked that at Apple they don't start with the product, they start with the advertisements. If they can't think up a good ad—if they can't tell you, in a few words, what this product does and why you simply must have it—they probably won't bother making the product. Apple wouldn't make something like Google Wave. It certainly wouldn't put it out into the world in such a fuzzy condition. It'd strip it down to one or two key functions, and sell it that way.

But Apple is a marketing company that happens to do some engineering. Google is an engineering company that has no clue about marketing. Apple is all about top-down control, while Google is built around the notion of open-source software, where you put your ideas out into the world and let others hack away at them, adding to them and changing them.

Google Wave isn't the first fuzzy product to come along in tech. Back in the 1980s, Lotus Development introduced a product nobody could understand, called Notes. Oddly enough, Notes also was all about "communication and collaboration." For years Lotus struggled, without success, to explain this mess of a program. "First it's a floor wax, now it's a dessert topping," an exasperated analyst once quipped, quoting Saturday Night Live. Finally the marketing people at Lotus decided that Notes was an e-mail program. Sure, it was more than that. But e-mail was something people could understand. Guess what? Sales took off.

The guy who created Notes, Ray Ozzie, went on to create yet another fuzzy product, again aimed at collaboration. This one was called Groove, and in 2005 it was bought by Microsoft, which made a big deal about how important and profound and revolutionary Groove was going to be. Well, it's still out there, somewhere. Microsoft has a Web page about it, but just looking at that page is enough to give you a migraine. Honestly, I defy you to click on that link and look at that page and then tell me what Groove is. These days you never hear about Groove, except when you ask someone at Microsoft how Ray Ozzie came to be the head techie there and they say, "Oh, he's the guy who invented Groove." If you ask, "What's Groove?" they'll say something like, "Um, yeah, I think there's a Web page about it . . . and hey, where do you want to have dinner?"

Will Google Wave be a hit? Will it replace e-mail? Will we someday all be using robots to add blips and gadgets to our embedded waves? Maybe, but if so, Google will have to do more than just put it out into the world. It needs to wrest it away from the engineers and let some marketing people figure out how to sell it.