the wave of the future

A few columns back I spent some time grousing about internet e-mail, and how this antiquated, badly designed old communication protocol was running up the financial and infrastructure costs of internet communications because of all the junk mail it allows

A few columns back I spent some time grousing about internet e-mail, and how this antiquated, badly designed old communication protocol was running up the financial and infrastructure costs of internet communications because of all the junk mail it allows into the system.

That grouchiness probably explains the keen interest I felt this week as Google went just-a-little-bit public with Wave, its new communication protocol, which, if it succeeds, could render e-mail obsolete – and maybe instant messaging and social networking services, too.

If you pay any attention to computer technology at all, you are going to hear a lot of hype about Wave over the next few weeks.

I will scrimp a bit, therefore, on describing on what it is and does, because I want to focus more on why, if it captures the market Google is hoping for, it is likely to mark a sea change in the way we do business and interact socially on the internet – and why that change will be both a good thing, and a potentially dangerous thing.

Put as simply and barely as I can manage: Wave is like a pot-luck soup of other internet services, with a lot of extra spice for flavour, and a liberal dose of caffeine for speed and oomph.

It uses your web browser to amalgamate e-mail, instant messaging, document sharing, audio-visual posting, blogging and twittering all in one common input-output interface.

This interface is called a “wave,” which, at first blush, looks a lot like somebody’s Facebook page gone nuts.

The difference is that Facebook is a kind of gated internet community, based on the subscription service model.

Facebook runs in-house services for its members that are not available to people who have not joined the community.

This is a pretty common service model in the internet world today, and one that often produces end-user disgruntlement.

For instance, Windows Live and Yahoo are two of the largest providers of instant messaging services, but subscribers to one service cannot talk to each other, only to people subscribed to the same service.

(There are applications they can download that bridge this communications gap, but those tend to operate with reduced functionality, and can find themselves left stranded and outdated if one of the services they are tapping into does something that cuts off their access.)

What is most exciting about Google’s model for Wave is that they do not envisage it as a service, like Facebook or instant messaging; they want it to become a publicly available protocol like the web’s HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol), or e-mail’s SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol – a howling misnomer, since SMTP is notoriously not simple at all).

They are not going to try to keep this new form of communication to themselves, available only to people who sign up with Google for service, and agree to look at the advertisements Google is going to show them, so the company can get rich.

They are going to release, to all comers, the computer code that makes Wave function, even if the people downloading the code intend to compete with Google for customers.

Google is hoping that, by making Wave free and readily available, they can establish it in time as a communication protocol as widespread and industry-transforming as the hypertext protocol proved to be in the mid 1990s.

They are also counting on their enormous power and market share in the kind of “cloud computing” technology Wave depends upon to give them a strong business advantage over late-entering competitors.

What they are doing, in other words, is pretty much what Microsoft did back in the early days of personal computing, when it decided to make its MS DOS operating system widely available to all kinds of computer producers.

Apple, meanwhile, decided to use an operating system specifically restricted to its own computers.

The outcome of that famous parting of ways is evident today: Microsoft’s operating system is everywhere, and their software programs based on that operating system have established themselves as the industry norms; Apple, meanwhile, though it still arguably builds a superior computer, has been relegated to bit-player status, and is in the process of becoming more of a vendor of entertainment equipment than of computers.

Google, I think, is following Bill Gates’ lead in the new age of cyber-communication, where the home personal computer is giving way to the portable, inter-personal communications device.

If they can establish their communication protocol as the industry norm in this new environment, they stand to make themselves the kings of the hill, no matter what challengers subsequently make use of that protocol to take them on.

The upside of this is that a lot of bad things about the internet – the bloated, wasteful horror that is e-mail, the silly and self-defeating exclusiveness of instant messaging programs – could finally disappear.

The downside is that we could find ourselves once again at the mercy of a technology company – Google, this time, not Microsoft – which achieves overwhelming power in communications technology, and then, as happens inevitably when any company becomes too powerful, degenerates into incompetence and corruption.

It remains to be seen whether Wave becomes the fabled “next big thing” information technology companies are always looking for; or whether, even if it does pan out, Google’s free-release strategy will work to their long term advantage.

My personal hope is that they get it more or less half right: They produce the “next big thing,” but in a way that does not give them the same kind of autocratic command of the field Microsoft enjoyed and abused in the computing world for far too long.

Google’s famous corporate motto is “Don’t be evil”- clearly something they arrived at with Microsoft in mind.

My end-user concern is not that Google could become so successful they would turn evil; it is equally dangerous if they become all-powerful and then just get stupid.

Rick Steele is a technology

junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

In a Feb. 17 statement, the City of Whitehorse announced it had adopted the what3words location technology used for emergency response. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Three words could make all the difference in an emergency

City of Whitehorse announced it had adopted the what3words location technology

Jesse Whelen, Blood Ties Four Directions harm reduction councillor, demonstrates how the organization tests for fentanyl in drugs in Whitehorse on May 12, 2020. The Yukon Coroner’s Service has confirmed three drug overdose deaths and one probable overdose death since mid-January. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three overdose deaths caused by “varying levels of cocaine and fentanyl,” coroner says

Heather Jones says overdoses continue to take lives at an “alarming rate”

Wyatt's World for Feb. 24, 2021.

Wyatt’s World for Feb. 24, 2021.

Approximately 30 Yukoners protest for justice outside the Whitehorse courthouse on Feb. 22, while a preliminary assault hearing takes place inside. The Whitehorse rally took place after the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, based in Watson Lake, put out a call to action over the weekend. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Courthouse rally denounces violence against Indigenous women

The Whitehorse rally took place after the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society put out a call to action

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

The Yukon government and the Yukon First Nations Chamber of Commerce have signed a letter of understanding under the territory’s new procurement policy. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
First Nation business registry planned under new procurement system

Letter of understanding signals plans to develop registry, boost procurement opportunities

US Consul General Brent Hardt during a wreath-laying ceremony at Peace Arch State Park in September 2020. Hardt said the two federal governments have been working closely on the issue of appropriate border measures during the pandemic. (John Kageorge photo)
New U.S. consul general says countries working closely on COVID-19 border

“I mean, the goal, obviously, is for both countries to get ahead of this pandemic.”

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Start of spring sitting announced

The Yukon legislature is set to resume for the spring sitting on… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Most Read