Swept Up in a Google Wave

Photo by Mrjoro.

Last week, I shared my impressions of Google Wave, which takes current web 2.0/Internet staple technologies like email, messaging, document collaboration, widgets/gadgets and extranets and mashes them up into an open communications standard that, if it lives up to Google's aspirations, will supersede email. There is little doubt in my mind that this is how the web will evolve. We've gone from:

  • The Yahoo! Directory model - a bunch of static web sites that can be catalogued and explored like chapters in a book, to

  • The Google needle/haystack approach - the web as a repository of data that can be mined with a proper query, to

  • Web 2.0, a referral-based model that mixes human opinion and interaction into the navigation system.

For many of us, we no longer browse, and we search less than we used to, because the data that we're looking for is either coming to us through readers and portals where we subscribe to it, or it's being referred to us by our friends and co-workers on social networks. Much of what we refer to eachother is content that we have created. The web is as much an application as it is a library now.

Google Wave might well be "Web 3.0", the step that breaks down the location-based structure of web data and replaces it completely with a social structure. Data isn't stored as much as it is shared. You don't browse to sites; you share, enhance, append, create and communicate about web content in individual waves. Servers are sources, not destinations in the new paradigm.

Looking at Wave in light of Google's mission and strategy supports this idea. Google wants to catalog, and make accessible, all of the world's information. Wave has a data mining and reporting feature called "robots". Robots are database agents that lurk in a wave, monitoring all activity, and then pop in as warranted when certain terms or actions trigger their response. The example I saw was of a nurse reporting in the wave that they're going to give patient "John Doe" a peanut butter sandwich. The robot has access to Doe's medical record, is aware of a peanut allergy, and pops in with a warning. Powerful stuff! But the underlying data source for Joe's medical record was Google Health. For many, health information is too valuable and easily abused to be trusted to Google, Yahoo!, or any online provider. The Wave security module that I saw hid some data from Wave participants, but was based upon the time that the person joined the Wave, not ongoing record level permissions.

This doesn't invalidate the use of Wave, by any means -- a wave that is housed on the Doctor's office server, and restricted to Doctor, Nurse and patient could enable those benefits securely. But as the easily recognizable lines between cloud computing and private applications; email and online community; shared documents and public records continue to blur, we need to be careful, and make sure that the learning curve that accompanies these web evolutions is tended to. After all, the worst public/private mistakes on the internet have generally involved someone "replying to all" when they didn't mean to. If it's that easy to forget who you're talking to in an email, how are we going to consciously track what we're revealing to whom in a wave, particularly when that wave has automatons popping data into the conversation as well?

The Wave as internet evolution idea supports a favored notion: data wants to be free. Open data advocates (like myself) are looking for interfaces that enable that access, and Wave's combination of creation and communication, facilitated by simple, but powerful data mining agents, is a powerful frontend. If it truly winds up as easy as email, which is, after all, the application that enticed our grandparents to use the net, then it has culture-changing potential. It will need to bring the users along for that ride, though, and it will be interesting to see how that goes.


A few more interesting Google Wave stories popped up while I was drafting this one. Mashable's Google Wave: 5 Ways It Could Change the Web gives some concrete examples to some of the ideas I floated last week; and, for those of you lucky enough to have access to Wave, here's a tutorial on how to build a robot.

Beta Google Wave accounts can be requested at the Wave website. They will be handing out a lot more of them at the end of September, and they are taking requests to add them to any Google Domains (although the timeframe for granting the requests is still a long one).