Google released to developers an early version of a collaboration and communication tool that consolidates features from e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, wikis, multimedia management and document sharing.
Called Wave, the Web application is the equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife for consumer online services and possibly one of the riskiest and most ambitious endeavors Google has embarked upon in years.
In the works for about two years, Wave has the potential to drive people away from popular Google products like Gmail, Google Docs, Google Talk, Picasa, Blogger and Sites, as well as from similar products from competitors like Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL.
However, Wave could also fall flat if people don't understand how it can be useful, or if they can't be convinced to give up their e-mail, blogging, IM and other individual online services.
Whatever destiny holds for Wave, it is a bold attempt by Google to give people a new unified Web application for their communication and content creation needs, instead of integrating the company's set of discrete online services.
That Wave ranks pretty high within Google's plans is evidenced by the starring role it is getting at the company's I/O developer conference. Thursday's keynote was devoted entirely to Wave, with the two project co-founders and its product manager on stage giving a lengthy and detailed demo of the tool.
"We're banking on Wave having a very large impact, but a lot of it depends on our ability to explain this to users. That's part of the reason why we're putting this out early to developers," said Lars Rasmussen, Wave project co-founder, in an interview.
Because Wave is conceptually adventurous and will require end users to wrap their heads around it, Google wants to get a conversation started about the product months before it's available to consumers, he said.
"It's good that we get to discuss it for some time before it's ready," Rasmussen said.
Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney, who is attending I/O, is very impressed with Wave. "This is one of the best product concepts I've seen in the past five years," Dulaney said.
It's clear that Wave represents a significant evolution for Internet communications, particularly e-mail and IM, and Gmail users will in time migrate to Wave, he said.
Makers of competing Webmail and IM services will have to respond with Wave equivalents, or else their users will also switch to the Google product, Dulaney added.
However, Wave's appeal extends beyond e-mail and IM, since it also offers a wide variety of other functionality, like blogs, wikis, photo management and document collaboration, and can be extended broadly by third parties thanks to its open architecture and APIs, he said.
"It glues together a lot of things that have until now been separate products," Dulaney said. "This is where users will want to be."
Even after working on the product for about two years, Rasmussen and the other members of the Wave development team still discover new uses for the tool, so he's very aware that grasping the possibilities of Wave will not be an automatic thing for end users.
That, again, is why Google decided to share Wave early with developers. "Now is a good time for developers to start picking up the APIs, building cool applications and extensions, so when we do launch later this year our users and their users can enjoy all these things together," he said.
Rasmussen and his brother Jens, the other Wave project co-founder, also learned how beneficial it can be to a Google product to have an enthusiastic community of developers around it. They arrived at Google in 2004 when Google bought their mapping startup Where 2 Tech, and went to work in creating what would become Google Maps, a service credited with igniting the mashup frenzy.
At its core, Wave lets people create a document to which multiple users can add rich text, multimedia, gadget applications and feeds, and do so concurrently in the way in which people interact on, say, instant messaging. These "waves" can be rolled back to view the evolution of the document.
It remains to be seen whether Wave will cannibalize Gmail and other popular Google products, but the culture of innovation at the company trumps those types of concerns.
"Just because we have a suite of very popular products, we shouldn't stop innovating; quite the contrary. We should always keep trying and do new, better things," Rasmussen said.
Wave is built on Google Web Toolkit using HTML 5, the latest version of the Web's markup language, and has a set of APIs designed to let developers extend its functionality and integrate it with other Web services. The protocol underneath Wave is designed for "open federation" so that the product is interoperable, and Google plans to launch the Wave code as open source.
Google expects to keep Wave as a developer preview product for at least several more months. For starters, only developers attending I/O will get access to Wave on Thursday. Google will expand access to more developers later.
Rasmussen warns that the Wave code will appear rough even to developers, so those interested should be of the adventurous type who like to be early adopters and participate in the evolution of a product.
While Wave doesn't inherently have a "friends graph" function, Google expects developers will build integration links for it with social-networking sites. During the keynote, the Wave team will show an early integration with Twitter.