One of the earliest forms of on-line communication is electronic mail. It was one of the first applications of the Internet back in the 1970s. Since then we have seen gradual improvements such as attachments and better email applications. This is a good example of sustainable innovation. However, the basic method of exchanging information has not changed. It’s still a message sent from one person to another person or a group of persons. They can reply, starting a tread of communication where the message gets bigger all the time and more confusing to read. Many people have probably thought that there must be a better way. This is exactly what Google is doing. Recently announced Google Wave will have us rethink how we communicate electronically. Google is trying to disrupt on-line communication.
Google Wave is at first impression a little strange and might take some getting used to. The reason is that we tend to think of online communication in a message-oriented way. I would imagine that those that would start directly to use waves without ever using email would see no other way. They would never understand why anybody would use email, as we know it. See the Google blog on how the project started.
Wave combines messages and chat with collaboration. Number of people can participate in the conversation and add to the wave by inserting text or images in real-time. A wave can even be played back, to see how it evolved. See the developer’s preview.
There are two key observations I want to make. First is social communication. Although email can be used by groups to communicate there is something awkward about it. Message is more like a person-to-person or person-to-many type of communication. Messages do not make central communication. Waves might be the way to create social communication in one central place. Many-to-many communication. Second is real-time communication. Like for Twitter there is some value in the real-time. Of course chat is real-time, but it usually lacks the content making it difficult to collaborate on meaningful ideas. Waves might be the way to have discussions on meaningful content in real-time.
E-mail succeeded because of its simplicity. It was the simplest thing that works. And it is actually a relatively simple protocol mostly designed to just send messages, ignoring complications such as security issues, trustworthiness and so on. It is yet another example of how simple usually works best, at least to begin with, when it needs to get the mass adoption. Then more requirements are made.
E-mail is old technology and has many drawbacks. It was invented back in time when computer systems were limited and network connections were not so reliable. And it was a time when security was not so much of an issue. Now we live in a completely different world and people are using the Internet in new and profound ways. We now expect real-time communications and data to be readily available at any time. It was time that e-mail got reinvented.
I guess I’m not ready to put email on my Technology Death List just yet but it’s clear that electronic communication will change. But if email gets on the list, let’s hope spam goes with it.