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.