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Google Wave

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Another revolution in the way we communicate and interact with each other on the web. Google may have done it yet again. Introducing… Google Wave!

What is it?

It’s difficult to explain. The Google developers’ way of describing it is to ask the question, “What would e-mail look like if it were invented today?” It’s probably easier to think of it as combining all the different ways we use to communicate and interact with each other on the Internet. Think of users who have e-mail, Facebook or LinkedIn, MySpace, YouTube, Blogger or WordPress, Twitter, chat and forum  accounts. It’s an ambitious project as it looks like they want it to replace e-mail. That’ll take some doing.

Why create yet another social networking tool?

E-mail, Facebook or LinkedIn, MySpace, YouTube, Blogger or WordPress, Twitter, chat and forums are all great ways to communicate and keep in touch with individuals and groups but they’re all separate and distinct and everyone has their own preferences for different service providers. E-mail is probably the most popular and widely used because accounts allow users to interact with users on other networks. For example, if you have a Yahoo! account, you can send and receive e-mails not only from other Yahoo! account holders but any other e-mail service providers such as Gmail or Hotmail or even to and from your own e-mail server. While e-mail is an open standard or protocol, most other services such as Facebook and MySpace are not. You can only keep in touch with people who have accounts with the same service provider. This can result in some people feeling “badgered” by friends, colleagues and acquaintances to get yet another account on the latest Internet messaging fad.

An example of Google wave's user interface
An example of Google wave's user interface

Google Wave promises to be different or should I say, more like e-mail. It’s an open source project so anyone can set up a Wave service of their own.  It’s also a protocol, which means that like e-mail, all Wave services can talk to each other so users only have to sign up to one service provider, just like e-mail. It’s also extensible so developers can create their own customised versions and add new functions and features. So we could end up with Google Wave, Yahoo! Wave, MSN Wave,  Acme Wave, etc.

What happens when you combine all these different ways of communicating into one unified interface?

In a word, synergy. It’s difficult to predict how it will evolve. It’s up to all of us and the developer community to come up with new, interesting and useful applications of this new technology. A good analogy would be the case of Nintendo: all they did was to combine a simple games console with the motion detector from a car air-bag system and it gave us the Wii. Almost overnight it overtook the Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox to become the most successful games console ever in what was previously believed to be a saturated market. It fundamentally changed the way we interact with games consoles and the types of games that are possible.

From what I’ve seen, one of the real strengths of this project is its user interface. It’s obviously aimed at the general, non-tech savvy user. A lot of the functions are “point and click”, “click and type” and “drag and drop”, meaning that it’s pretty intuitive for anyone to participate fully in a Wave. It’s quick and easy to drag and drop links to pages, embed images or other media and have them appear instantly and automatically – no more user interface dialogue boxes. The interface is also “live” so that all participants of a Wave can see what each other are doing and typing in real time, so no more watching and waiting while others are typing their contributions.

One thing’s for sure. The developer community are very excited about Google Wave and we’ll see a lot of activity and new ideas coming out of it soon. The e-learning community is already buzzing about it too. Actually, I suspect that the Google development team gave this early preview seminar because they knew it was already creating quite a stir and was going to be made public quite soon in one way or another.

How is this relevant to e-learning?

Well, more and more learning management systems (LMS) are being built around social networking structures so that tutors and learners can interact and collaborate with each other, much the same way that they do at schools, academies and universities. At the moment, holding a webinar or on-line classroom session requires a media server, something that is not within the budget or capabilities of a lot of educational organisations. There are 3rd party services available such as Adobe Connect and Elluminate but they also come at a price.

I’ll make a bold prediction. I bet that it’s only a matter of time after Google Wave’s official public release that developers start coming up with extensions to incorporate Internet telephony (VoIP) services. Once we have that, companies that provide web conferencing services like Adobe Connect and Elluminate should be very concerned. We’ll all have free access to some very sophisticated, powerful and flexible web conferencing tools that can do all of the things that used to come with a premium price-tag. In other words, we can look forward to seeing the overall cost of live, interactive e-learning being reduced in the same way that Skype has reduced the cost of international telephone services.

Wave is open source and extensible so anyone can add new features to it
Wave is open source and extensible so anyone can add new features to it

This has huge implications for learning on the web. Tutors will be freely able to hold web conferences with individuals or groups of learners where everyone is on a unified interface where they can talk, see each other, write and share text, images, graphics, animation, games, polls, surveys and questionnaires, audio and video much more quickly, flexibly and easily than even in a modern hi-tech classroom. The participants can be located anywhere in the world and the only requirement is a computer with a broadband Internet connection. Anyone will be able to start up e-learning courses and tutors and course content designers will be freer than ever to do what they really want with the tools available and worry less about getting LMS developers to make their ideas possible or worrying about how they’re going to pay for services that previously came with a premium price-tag. I think we’ll see an acceleration in the quality and quantity of e-learning appearing on the web.

How can I find out more?

Google presented Wave at a developer seminar and kindly recorded it and uploaded it to YouTube. They’re promising to make an official public release of Wave later this year. Please note, it’s an hour and twenty minutes long so make yourself and cup of tea or coffee, maybe even some popcorn, get comfortable and settle in for a long presentation.

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Google Wave project home page.

Google Wave page on Wikipedia.org.