Google Wave: What it is and how it works

Google's new platform consolidates various communications and social-networking technologies into a single Web application.

Google used its annual I/O conference to announce its new Wave communications platform. Built by the same team of Australian Google engineers who created Google Maps, the latest Web application from the search giant allows you to combine e-mail, instant messaging, photo management and social-networking technologies into a single tool.

The core interface of Google Wave resembles a standard e-mail box with some tweaks. The most important part of the interface is the right box, which shows the conversations, dubbed "waves" by Google. These conversation can have multiple participants, who all have the ability to edit the conversation at any time, with each user seeing a live feed of what each participant is doing within that feed.

While at its most basic Google Wave can be seen as a combination of instant messaging and e-mail, there is a lot more going on. New participants can be added to a wave at any time either by clicking "Add" on the wave or dragging and dropping a contact from the Contacts pane.

Once a wave is in progress, users can add pictures by simply dragging them into the wave. These will progressively download, so that the thumbnails of the pictures appear instantly, while the full image is loaded in the background. Users can also conduct "quiet" conversations with one or two other participants within the actual wave, and these cannot be seen by the other participants unless you want them to.

Google Wave is open source for a reason: it can be expanded through third-party development to include new tools and features. You can add polls, wiki entries, RSS feeds and even play games using Google Wave, thanks to its HTML5 base and connection to the Google Web Development Toolkit. Google has also made several APIs available to help third-party developers create new "gadgets" and features for the Web application.

Google has gone so far as to allow anyone to host a wave server. Rather than being centrally located on Google's own servers, any developer who wishes to incorporate Google wave onto their own Web site can use the Wave protocol to host the content locally.

Another handy feature is the ability to automatically correct misspelt text. Affectionately dubbed "Spelly" by Sydney-based Google engineers, the Wave gadget will automatically change text if misspelt, and can even recognise how a word is supposed to be spelt based on context within the sentence. A Google engineer demoed this by typing in "Ickland is an ickland"; Google Wave automatically changed this to "Iceland is an island" based solely on context.

Google engineers demonstrated the potential for third-party development with a Twitter gadget. The gadget incorporates your Twitter feed into a separate Wave and even allows you to tweet from the wave. The tweet is then incorporated into the standard Twitter language protocol and sent as a normal tweet.

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