web: RIP Google Wave

Google Wave screenshotGoogle is shutting down wave.google.com. Back in 2009 it was the most exciting piece of software to come along in years. A real-time multi-user rich document editor!! So it can be a chat window, a collaborative Word document, a scrapbook, a planning area, an e-mail thread, a live news update… Google boiled it down to “A wave can be both a document and a conversation.”

Its demise was almost preordained when Gmail didn’t show new and updated waves. Perhaps another SPage’s law: If it has its own inbox, then it’s probably going to fail. After dealing with my regular Gmail inbox, the last thing I want to do is go to another inbox and fuss with that. And Gmail isn’t even my main e-mail account, so I rarely get to Gmail, let alone other Google inboxes! Which reminds me, maybe I’ve got new messages in my Google Voice inbox

The ideas/ideals of Google Wave live on in other Google products. Several people can work on the same Google Docs document at the same time and it has a separate chat window. And Google documented the underlying Wave federation protocol and released an open source implementation. Building on that codebase, Etherpad lets multiple people go to a URL and simultaneously edit its text; then Mozilla turned this into htmlpad which lets multiple people author the same HTML document.

So instead of Google Wave taking over everything thanks to its fundamental do-everything capabilities, existing web software and new web niches have adopted its features. I think free-form amorphous collaboration is just too uncertain for us humans, even with revision history and rollback. The idea that your chat could be turned into a presentation, or your e-mail can be rewritten by someone else, is disquieting, even though in a digital fungible world that’s always the case. Google Wave too explicitly showed our 1s and 0s are just an amorphous lump of clay, most people need a framework such as my sent e-mail – your reply,  my chat – your response, or my version of the Word doc – everyone else’s ^%$#@! e-mail attachment; though the success of wikis suggest many of us can give up authorship in the right context.

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