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 an organizing 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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