engineering a better experience
Sunday, December 06, 2009 (Updated )

Reader Question: What is Google Wave?

by The Metaist

This post is a response to a reader question.


An anonymous reader asks: What is Google Wave and why would I want to use it?

Surface waves

Not this kind of wave, but close.
(Photo: Wikimedia)



Google Wave is a new technology that is supposed to combine three existing technologies:

  1. Email
  2. Instant Messaging (IM), and
  3. Wikis.


Most of us are familiar with email. Briefly, it's static distributed content. In other words, one person can send out some information to a bunch of other people.

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging, however, is dynamic—you interact with another person (or multiple people) at once.


Wikis are collaboratively editable documents. The most famous example is Wikipedia, but there are others (including private wikis such as those found within corporations). Wikis are basically "dynamic content". So now, the content itself can change over time, but everyone can see previous version of the content if they choose.


Google's conception of a Wave, therefore, is a wiki where you see the changes in real-time (sort of like Google Documents). Here's how it works:

  1. You create a new wave and add some collaborators.

  2. The new wave appears in the collaborators "inbox".

  3. Any collaborator (including you, the creator) can start to edit the wave.

  4. Anyone looking at the wave (i.e. one of the collaborators) can see who's editing (and where on the page they're editing) in real time.

  5. The wave can have robot collaborators who perform menial tasks (like "replace all the YouTube links with YouTube videos").

  6. The wave can also have "gadgets" that collaborators interact with (such as a "survey gadget" that surveys people).

  7. At any time, you can scroll back to see previous states of the wave all the way back to its creation.


So where would you use a wave? The answer largely depends on how you handle collaboration. Nature has a write-up about how scientists could use waves to collaborate and use robot collaborators to comb through papers and cross-reference, for example, gene names in databases. More mundane uses might include organizing a camping trip, but you're really only limited by your imagination.


Have you used Google Wave? Did you find it useful? What did you like / dislike?




  • Updated link to Nature article.