Google Wave: Big potential for innovation teams

An ambitious new messaging and collaboration tool from Google aims to rethink the way we communicate, collaborate and create online. Here are some thoughts on how Google Wave could be utilized by innovation teams.

Earlier this week, I viewed a demo of a Google messaging and collaboration tool that the search giant announced last week at the Google IO developer summit. Google Wave combines the best elements of e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, wikis, Twitter and also supports file and document sharing.

Wave was born out of the idea that email and instant messaging were both created a very long time ago, prior to the advent of some of the social tools we use today to share content easily. It addresses one of the biggest downsides of e-mail as we know it: long threads of replied to and forwarded emails where it is impossibly difficult to work out who said what when. As Google developer Lars Rasumussen put it, “Wave is what e-mail would look like if it were invented today.”

The demo is fascinating; its slick toolset, which works completely within the web browser with a simple drag-and-drop interface, could really help organizations to collaborate on and share ideas in some exciting new ways. Wave is already being hailed by industry analysts as “a tipping-point innovation that could rewrite the rules of person-to-person engagement on the internet.”

Click here to view a video of the demonstration of Google Wave.

The Wave interface contains a left-hand navigation sidebar and a list of your contacts, from Google Contacts, below that. The main part of the workspace is your Wave inbox, which displays conversation threads – which could consist of e-mails, instant messages, images and other forms of content. It also displays several types of indicators, which signify if there is new content in that thread. Clicking on a wave thread will opens another pane to the right of the inbox that displays it in its entirety.

Wave enables you to respond to all or part of a friend’s message. If they are online, Wave behaves much like an instant messaging application; if they are offline, it behaves more like an e-mail tool. Wave doesn’t pop open new windows for typing messages; everything is done inline, in the workspace, which gives it a very cohesive feel.

If you want to invite another colleague to contribute to a wave, you simply drag and drop their picture from the contacts pane onto that wave. Of course, at this point, they are stepping into the middle of what may be a lengthy conversation, with little or no context. That’s why the developers of Wave wisely included a “Playback” feature, which enables them to “rewind” the wave to see what has happened in the past and watch it progress through its changes.

If two people who are participating in a wave are online at the same time, they can talk to each other within the wave – much like an instant messaging application. Except the other person can see what you’re typing in real time, instead of having to wait while they type an entire message (as most IM programs do). A brightly colored box is displayed, highlighting the item that they are adding to or editing, so collaborators don’t end up stepping all over each other’s changes – a common problem when group editing a document with others in real time. In this respect, Wave has some of the characteristics of a wiki.

You can also break off pieces of the wave into private conversations, if there is some element of what you’re discussing that you don’t want everyone to know about.

In addition, you can drag and drop images into the wave, which are instantly shared with others in a very nice gallery layout.

It gets better: Using the Google Wave API, you can integrate what’s going on within your wave with a blog or web page, so others can see what’s going on in the conversation and can even contribute to it, right from the remote page.

Google says Wave will be able to be hosted by the search giant, but can also be installed on corporate servers, making it potentially a very powerful workgroup collaboration tool.

What’s next? Google says that this demo was just a taste of what’s coming in the final version of Wave, which it intends to release as a free open-source tool and development platform. Even at this early stage, it’s already very intriguing. Google has released an API (application development kit) to selected developers, who will start working on additional services that will integrate with Wave.  That should lead to  a ton of gadgets, extensions, mash-ups and interesting sites all built around the Wave concept.

Google hasn’t announced a release date for Wave, but clearly it has generated a lot of excitement online. If there is any downside to Wave, it’s that it does so much that some people may find it confusing at first. But on balance, the Google development team gets two thumbs way up for creating a very clean, well-organized interface that does a lot of things very elegantly.

How could Wave help companies to innovate more effectively? Here are a few potential scenarios:

  • Group brainstorming
  • Collaboration around pilot projects or prototype products and services
  • Industry intelligence gathering – identify and discuss “weak signals” and industry trends that could lead to new innovations

If you want to learn more about Google Wave, here is a link to the product’s website as well as uber-technology blog TechCrunch’s in-depth coverage of it, which includes interviews with the developers who envisioned and created Wave (hint: it’s the same two guys who created the amazingly multi-faceted Google Maps).

How do you think this exciting new tool can be applied to innovation teams? Please share your thoughts in the comments area below. Thanks!