The buzzphrase for Wave, a utility first demonstrated Thursday at the Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco, is "What email would look like if it were developed today." I think that oversimplifies it. As I see it, Wave is a realtime-updating collaborative creation and communication engine, a targeted social network with built-in customizable privacy controls, all presented in a cross-platform, browser-neutral package that's accessible to everyone. But that's a mouthful.
Here's how it works: In Google Wave you create a wave and add people to it. Everyone on your wave can use richly formatted text, photos, gadgets, and even feeds from other sources on the web. They can insert a reply or edit the wave directly. It's concurrent rich-text editing, where you see on your screen nearly instantly what your fellow collaborators are typing in your wave. That means Google Wave is just as well suited for quick messages as for persistent content — it allows for both collaboration and communication. You can also use "playback" to rewind the wave and see how it evolved.
Most everyone sees Wave's potential to transform e-mail and instant-messaging (provided you understand Wave's new set of terms), but there are many other implications. PC World wonders if Wave represents the evolution of social networks. Channel Web says it poses a threat to Microsoft and IBM's collaboration software business. In its review, The Atlantic calls Wave a "Swiss Army Inbox" that could change the way we work.
What's more, what we know of Wave so far is just the start of what it can do. Google has stressed that above all, they want Wave to be an open-source project, because, as Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra said, "we need developers to help us to complete this product." What he's getting at there, is that Wave was not designed to be just one product with one function, but a set of tools for building ever-newer and more innovative ways for people to interact using the Web. To parrot their PR-speak, it's a product and a platform.
Google Wave is in closed beta testing for now, and won't be available to the public until later this year, but people can sign up to be among the first to try it out here.