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 endeavours 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.
Ernest Lombardi, a web developer with Sapphire Technologies in Portland, Maine, was "blown away" after sitting through the keynote.
"It's simple, genius, and most importantly open. Watching the presentation, I had visions of Wave having an impact on everything from academia to collaborative fiction to the legislative process at state and federal levels," Lombardi said via email.
Lombardi already envisions a variety of ways in which Wave could be useful to some of his clients who are interested in collaboration, community building applications and social networking-like interfaces.
He believes Wave has big potential to be revolutionary.
"Wave is aptly named, since it has the potential to wash away what we now consider to be the Internet. It is not difficult to imagine the net as we know it becoming an ever-expanding archipelago of Wave-based islands," Lombardi said.
Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney, who is attending I/O, is also 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 email 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 email 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."