What would e-mail and instant messaging look like if those technologies were created today rather than at the dawn of the Internet?
That's the question that drove a trio of developers in Google's Australia office to create a new tool that the search engine giant is calling a model for the future of online interaction: Google Wave.
Google changed the way we scour the Web for information and now with Wave seems to have grander designs on rethinking our digital experience by changing the way we work, connect and collaborate through the Internet.
The end result is nothing short of an ambitious rethinking of online communication, one that makes e-mail and instant messaging seem as stale as last night's pizza crust.
It's as if Google took elements of e-mail, instant messaging, videos, maps, photos and document production, threw them in a blender with a sprinkle of Web 2.0 thinking, added a dash of the usual Google flair and spat out something with the potential to make Twitter's surging popularity seem like a passing fad.
The new service was unveiled yesterday at Google's annual I/O developer conference, and while the public won't get to ride Wave until the development community gets a crack at it, early indications are that Wave just might exceed Google's own ambitious expectations.
A Wave is essentially a living document that rests in the clouds. Imagine an e-mail that acts like a cross between a Word document and an instant messaging window where you can see the people you're communicating with typing in real time.
If you're working on a Wave with someone who is online, it works like an IM service, allowing you to chat back and forth. Offline, leave someone a message like you would with an e-mail or a Google Doc. This allows the service to be equally useful for quick messages as for long-term projects and collaboration.
Adding new participants to a Wave is as simple as drag and drop. Ditto for pictures.
Came into a Wave after your colleagues were already working and want to get caught up on what everyone was saying and doing? Simply hit the "playback" function and rewind the Wave to see what everyone contributed and how the discussion unfolded at your own pace.
Wave also allows multiple users to edit the page Wiki-style in real time, so that others can see what you're doing, (anyone who has worked with Google Docs or similar services will understand how useful this feature will be).
A Wave can be embedded on a blog or a Website where users can log in and add their own contributions, similar to the Cover it Live service that many news organizations (including this one) are already using.
Wave was created by Google Australia developers Stephanie Hannon (lead product manager for Wave) and brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen. The Rasmussen brothers are best remembered as the co-founders of Where 2 Technologies, a startup that built the early technology that would eventually become Google Maps after being acquired by the tech titan.
Unfortunately Wave isn't quite ready for prime time. Google employees have only had access to Wave for a few months internally and Google wants the developer community to get their hands on the code so that new technologies and functionalities can be built into the service.
Wave is something that really must be seen to be believed. You can check out a video of Wave in action here .
Google is famous for creating lots of "cool" Internet services that offer new ways of looking at the world, but which don't make any money, so I doubt Google is looking for Wave to be any different in that regard.
Although the developer community appears anxious for a chance to dip their toes into Google's Wave, expect the general public to wade in cautiously before taking the plunge.