The enterprise implications of Google Wave

Google announced their forthcoming service known as Wave this week to widespread coverage in both the press and blogosphere.
Created by many of the same team members that created the highly successful Google Maps, the preview of the service itself on Thursday was quite compelling, resulting in a rare standing ovation at a tech conference according to ZDNet’s own Sam Diaz. Its egalitarian and federation-friendly design is intended to create an entire open ecosystem for communication and collaboration that Google is not-so-modestly touting as the reinvention of digital interaction circa 2009.

This is clearly a tall order, but the Internet leader provides plenty of substance to back up this vision despite growing evidence that individual companies may be losing the capacity to drive the agenda for the world when it comes to establishing successful new Internet standards and technologies. While the ultimate destiny of Wave itself is far from clear, it’s both intriguing and open enough that it will likely emerge on the radar of businesses large and small when it becomes widely available later in the year.

Google Wave

Wave’s relevance to the enterprise might seem premature with so many of the early and current Web 2.0 applications (blogs, wikis, social networks, Twitter-style social messaging, mashups, etc.) still — often arduously — making their way into the workplace years after their inception. Though we seem to finally be hitting a tipping point with 2.0 tools at work, Wave itself seems credible enough to get on our watchlists, at least to understand the implications.

The real question is whether there are really such significant gaps in the current state of Web-based communication that we need something new like Wave. With Google’s tendency to emphasize the consumer world first and the enterprise later, it’s also valid to ask if Wave will really have much impact on businesses. Interestingly, you might be surprised at some of the answers, so let’s take a look.

Wave: A communication and collaboration mashup

Google Wave itself consists of a dynamic mix of conversation models and highly interactive document creation via the browser. Using simple, open Web technologies (Google makes much of the fact that most of Google Wave is a open set of formats and architectures that is jointly developed with the Web community) Wave combines many of the key features of e-mail, instant messaging, media sharing, and social networking into a seamless experience and data set that are eponymously known as waves. All of this is opened up to developers via the Google Wave API.

The demonstration at the introduction of Google Wave (link below) showed how users can interact in real-time, collaboratively creating structured conversations that contain rich media, instant notifications, simultaneous user editing of the conversation, and live integration with server-side resources such as spell-checking and language translation. Most interestingly, while waves are relatively self-contained and use their own types of servers and data formats, they are easy to embed elsewhere or to build extensions for, enabling virtually infinite options for distribution over the Web or within the firewall, as well as rapid integration with existing applications and data. In fact, a wave is almost a form of social glue between people and the information they care about. And as we’ll see, this has implications for the enterprise world, not only with SOA but also with social communication in general as well as Enterprise 2.0 specifically.

See Waves in action: Watch the introduction keynote at Google I/O on Thursday.

What Google has done with the Wave protocol is essentially create a new kind of social media format that is distinctively different from blogs, wikis, activity streams, RSS, or most familiar online communication models except possibly IM. Both blogs and wikis were created in the era of page-oriented Web applications and haven’t changed much since. In contrast, Google Wave is designed for real-time participation and editing of shared conversations and documents and is more akin to the simultaneous multiuser experience of Google Docs than with traditional blogs and wiki editing. Though Google is sometimes criticized for missing the social aspect of the Web, that is patently not the case with waves, which are fundamentally social in nature. Participants can be added in real-time, new conversations forked off (via private replies), social media sharing is assumed to be the norm, and connection with a user’s contextual server-side data is also a core feature including location, search, and more.

The result is stored in a persistent document known as a wave, access to which can be embedded anywhere that HTML can be embedded, whether that’s a Web page or an enterprise portal. Users can then discover and interact with the wave, joining the conversation, adding more information, etc. Google has also leveraged its investments in Google Gadgets and OpenSocial, two key technologies for spreading online services beyond the original boundaries of the sites they came from. All in all, Google Wave is a smart and well-constructed bundle of collaborative capabilities with many of the modern sensibilities we’ve come to expect in the Web 2.0 era including an acutely social nature, rapid interaction, and community-based technology.

As the original announcement post explained, to fully understand Google Wave, one should appreciate the separation of concerns between the product Google is offering and the protocols and technologies behind it, which are open to the Web community:

Google Wave has three layers: the product, the platform, and the protocol:

  • The Google Wave product (available as a developer preview) is the web application people will use to access and edit waves. It’s an HTML 5 app, built on Google Web Toolkit. It includes a rich text editor and other functions like desktop drag-and-drop (which, for example, lets you drag a set of photos right into a wave).
  • Google Wave can also be considered a platform with a rich set of open APIs that allow developers to embed waves in other web services, and to build new extensions that work inside waves.
  • The Google Wave protocol is the underlying format for storing and the means of sharing waves, and includes the “live” concurrency control, which allows edits to be reflected instantly across users and services. The protocol is designed for open federation, such that anyone’s Wave services can interoperate with each other and with the Google Wave service. To encourage adoption of the protocol, we intend to open source the code behind Google Wave.

The key here is that Google is expecting many more front-ends for creating and editing waves, depending on the individual requirements of various entities. Google Wave is their own front-end application for doing so and using HTML 5 in their wave client shows they are planning more for the future than present.

An enterprise perspective of Google Wave

But Google’s point is well taken: The hodge podge of 1990s era (and often older, in the case of e-mail) Internet communication methods were created in another era. Blogs, wikis, IM, and so on are all useful modes of communication but there are better ways and new requirements in today’s high social, interactive, and highly integrated times. That’s not to say that many companies haven’t tried to do this already, but virtually none of them have the ability to drive the modern development community or use their existing online market share to foster adoption in the end-user marketplace like Google does. In the end, barring a major misstep from Google, chances are good that organizations will have to deal with business data in the Wave Protocol format in the future.

Using Google Wave in the Enterprise

Let’s take a closer look at what enterprises need to know about Google Wave:

  • Google Wave largely complements and doesn’t replace existing communication and collaborative applications. Google Wave creates a healthy synthesis of existing application types by providing integration across existing channels. The early demos in fact showed how Twitter and existing social networks can play very well with Google Wave, enhancing the experience and allow broader participation. Google Wave won’t replace existing apps like e-mail, IM, blogs, or wikis, and will actually make the latter two stronger through embedding. Groupware and other simultaneously collaborative apps, however, are more at risk of displacement.
  • Enterprise 2.0 is well supported by Google Wave. The general capabilities of FLATNESSES, my mnemonic for all the things that a capable Enterprise 2.0 platform should do, is well embodied in Google Wave. While blogs and wikis are the fundamental Enterprise 2.0 platforms, the basic capabilities of social interaction, emergence, and freeformedness are all there, though a wave presupposes a bit more structure and situated use than the more tabula rasa blog or wiki.
  • New protocols, servers, data formats, and client applications are required to use wave. Unfortunately, Google Wave brings a lot of baggage with it, though it’s mostly straightforward. You will require new software, though not on the client since that all runs in a zero-footprint browser client. This means more integration code, management, and monitoring. The best news is that everything is well-documented, open, and any organization can participate in directing the wave community, so lock-in, while always possible, seems largely avoidable and Google takes great pains to draw us to that conclusion. Google is also pushing hard for alternative implementations of the client and server components, including on-premise implementations, with the former on display at their announcement.
  • Waves are a natural integration point for many enterprise services including ECM, SOA, mashups, and more. By defining a strong protocol for continuous server-side processing of live conversations, Google has enabled an entire world where our IT systems are connected to the work we do every day. Literally while participants are busy typing and collaborating, a wave can be receiving support from back-end systems such as HRM, CRM, ERP, and so on to provide data, context, and other just-in-time support. Many businesses could benefit enormously from seamless business data integration such as customers, orders, and so on, never mind the deeper possibilities of contextual business processes leveraged directly in the collaborative activities of workers. I’ve written many times about the convergence of our IT systems and Web 2.0, and this seams one of the more natural environments for it that I’ve seen in a while.
  • Embedding and extensions will enable widespread distribution and consumption of waves. Google brings ease-of-development for creating server-side extension as well as simple models for user-distribution of waves. While the first will enable easy integration with local data sources and will create a large aftermarket for useful extensions such as the aforementioned language translation capabilities, the second will virtually ensure that enterprises will have interaction with waves one way or another. Since the premise of the product is also one of the dominant activities in the business world (enabling teamwork) and combined with the increasing consumerization of the workplace, it’s highly likely that organizations will encounter waves in their work with external entities, especially with partners and clients. At the very least, organizations will need to understand how waves will make their organizations even more porous on the Internet, and have policies about participating in them, just like SaaS services, social networks, and other external applications. Security will also be an issue with waves though things like integration of Web 2.0 tools and ECM will actually be easier than ever before since a corporate archive robot could ensure every wave conversation is backed up in the formal ECM system.

Google has launched many communication services since its inception including Gmail, Gtalk, Blogger to name just three, yet none of these have had such obvious business utility or attempted to reinvent the collaborative process from the ground-up. While it’s always possible that Google Wave will never broadly take off (see Mary Jo Foley’s analysis of Wave here), I’m betting that it’s likely to be one of the most interesting offerings to businesses that the company has created yet. With the open positioning, early outreach to the world, and the clarity of purpose and design, Google Wave has a good shot at helping take Enterprise 2.0 to the next level in many organizations.

BY Dion Hinchcliffe

A veteran of software development, Dion Hinchcliffe has been working for two decades with leading-edge methods to accelerate project schedules and raise the bar for software quality. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

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