Google Wave expands, in search of a clear use-case scenario

Today, Google is expected to invite as many as 100,000 more participants into the private beta of its concurrent communications system, called Wave. As that happens, many more participants will be able to not only communicate with one another in a more granular form of real-time, but potentially collaborate on work and projects.

It's that latter part of the program that's supposed to congeal at some point into a collective sense of purpose. But this time, unlike Microsoft's first experiments with Dynamic Data Exchange between applications on the same computer three decades ago, there isn't yet a clear, single purpose for the system. No question it could bring individuals as close together as people separated by indefinite distance could become; but as to the question of what they do with one another once they do get together, Google is hoping this question -- like so many others it puts out there in the open -- resolves itself.

Yesterday, Google offered links to a number of different independent assessments of the possible, eventual purpose of Google Wave, though it offered them as use-case scenarios rather than projections of possible goals for the product...which is what many actually were.

New York filmmaker Jonathan Poritsky, for instance, envisioned a new scenario for collaborative filmmaking where all the creative resources are continually working on the same digital product, existing in the same space. He pointed out that, if computing has done anything for the filmmaking process up to now, it's in building up the current workload and expediting it under the sequential model that has existed for decades.

"The movie-making process has remained largely unchanged in over a hundred years. Think about it. While technology may have advanced the way we do things, it hasn't really affected what we are doing," Poritsky wrote. Using workflow charts to help demonstrate his point, he continued, "Whether you are making a low-budget documentary or a Hollywood blockbuster, these steps are all required. You go somewhere to shoot your subject. The film is processed at a lab, then color corrected and put onto video tapes, which are then dubbed to any number of formats depending on how many people need to access your footage. This is key, the more people who need to access the footage need a physical copy of it. The tapes are then captured into an editing system and cut together. The final step...encompasses all of the steps required to get the piece viewable for an audience. Touching up picture, tweaking color, negative cutting, digital intermediate, and film printing are just a few examples of this last leg of filmmaking."

Enabling this sequence to flow smoothly, he went on, requires a hard and fast process of accountability, all of which is hardened by e-mail and databases (and, if Microsoft has its way, a workflow management system). "These kinds of systems are a safety net. They don't enhance the process, they simply make it so that when things break down you can find where the weak spot is hidden."

A possible substitute model for this kind of workflow, Poritsky posited, is represented by a star topology where all the creative resources are exchanging work processes concurrently with a centralized repository and communications nexus, which he calls the "Filmmaker's Wave." He acknowledged that even today's networks aren't fast or wide enough to be able to manage completely concurrent, real-time sharing of super-high-definition video. But once that problem was solved, Google Wave could utilize something similar to its model for photo sharing between family members, to share moving images with crisp, multi-channel sound between technicians, editors, and producers.

But does Google understand that message, and is it setting similar goals for its Wave project? An interview this morning between two Google Wave developers and the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones suggests that they may be aware of goal-setting endeavors such as Poritsky's, but that they're more content to let folks such as Poritsky foster those goals for themselves, than drive that process from the top down.

Cellan-Jones asked Google's Lars Rasmussen and Stephanie Hannon a very direct question: What's the difference between communicating and collaborating using Wave, and "instant messaging on steroids?" It wasn't just a spur-of-the-moment metaphor, and Cellan-Jones probably knew that at the time: As far back as 2001, British Telecom was involved in a joint venture with Intel to develop a concurrent wireless telecommunications network that they repeatedly described using the exact same language; more recently, IBM has been trying to market a set of so-called Community Tools that has been marketed using that same metaphor.

That didn't faze Google's Rasmussen, though, who was happy to just claim the metaphor for himself and leave it at that: "I think e-mail and instant messaging on steroids is not a bad start," he responded, "but you can actually do a lot of different types of both communication and collaboration in Wave. You can have conversations like you would in e-mail can have instant messaging conversations. But you can also collaborate on content; you can let users edit each other's messages."

This was demonstrated through the use of colored tags on cursors that can, in real-time move up the ladder of an IM conversation to change some words into other words, or turn an emoticon from sad to happy.

If this phase of the Google Wave project accomplishes anything truly significant, it may be in helping to frame the enormous gulf between what we have to do to make live collaboration truly functional over a global network, and what we have today to do it with.

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