Using Google Wave for a week – it’s still great!

Google Wave is a new tool for communication and collaboration on the web. When Wave was first announced May 28 at the Google I/O conference, many people immediately saw its potential as a great collaboration tool for scientists:

We based our first impressions on the material available online, especially the video of the Google Wave presentation at Google I/O. The problem is, Wave is currently only available to selected developers, and will not be generally available until the end of the year. Wave is currently not even beta software and was announced now so that third-party developers have enough time to build (and test) extensions to Wave.

Those of us being invited to SciFoo (which took place July 10-12 at Google) were lucky not only in attending a great conference, but also in getting a Wave account. Wave product manager Steph Hannon gave us an introduction to Wave on the first evening, and Cameron Neylon organized a session about Wave the next day. The session was mainly about the Wave extensions that we scientists would need (and I'm sure that Cameron will blog about that), but we could also ask two developers from the Wave team a lot of questions.

After using Wave for one week, I obviously have a much better feeling for how it can help scientists to communicate and collaborate. The best way to start is to think of Wave as email on steroids. Wave is web-based (which means that it currently only works when you have an internet connection) with a nice interface similar to Gmail or other webmail products. One big advantage over email is that all reply messages are directly connected to the original message (similar to comments on a blog). This is especially helpful for longer email threads and when more than two people are involved.

But Wave is also instant messaging. You see a small green dot next to your contacts that are currently online, and you can see them typing in real-time (which looks really creepy the first time you see that).

And Wave is also like a Wiki. You can not only respond to a message, but everybody participating in the Wave can also change the original message (and several people can work on the same message simultaneously). This works great for things such as listing all the blog posts about SciFoo.

The combination of wiki-style editing plus comments make Wave an interesting alternative to project management tools such as Basecamp. And this means that Wave can also be used to work on longer documents – something that the Wave developers regularly do for documentation, etc. Wave documents can also contain images, videos, links, etc. Wave supports different fonts, text colors, bold and italic text, and four different heading levels (for titles and subtitles).

Text from Allen L. et al. 2009.

But in contrast to most online collaboration tools, Wave can be extended with additional functionality that scientists require. Bibliographic references would be an obvious example, and here tools such as Google Docs or Adobe Buzzword fall short.

Wave extensions come in the form of gadgets (that work on the client) and robots (that work on the server). Wave gadgets are XML files, whereas robots can currently be developed in either Java or Python. Other programming languages (PHP, Ruby, Perl, etc.) for robots will soon become possible when robots no longer have to be hosted on Google App Engine. Using the tools provided by Google, writing a robot is actually not that difficult and it took me only an hour to have a sample “Hello World!” robot running in Wave. It will obviously take weeks or months to develop more sophisticated robots (e.g. for management of bibliographic references), but I'm sure that a number of exciting science-related extensions will be ready by the time Wave becomes publicly available later this year.

We plan a session with a live Wave demo at the Science Online London conference in August so that more scientists and science communicators become familiar with Wave. About 10 people that registered for the conference already have Wave accounts and I hope that some of them will come up with interesting science-related robots or gadgets. If you are a Wave user, you can reach me at And if you want to develop great science-related extensions for Wave, please contact Cameron Neylon.

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24 Responses to Using Google Wave for a week – it’s still great!

  1. David Basanta says:

    Great stuff Martin, I am hoping that someone will come with some solution for references and bibliography. Having to work with collaborators in different universities I already find google docs like a good place to start writing the first version of a draft.

  2. Bora Zivkovic says:

    Perhaps with the developers being there, hearing you, and being in touch since, they will make relevant updates to Google Wave that will be useful to scientists…just in time to demo it at ScienceOnline’10? Who should I contact to make that idea a reality?

  3. Martin Fenner says:

    David, integration of references is a major shortcoming of Google Docs. The relationship between Google Docs and Google Wave is not totally clear to me, but I think that Wave is the better tool for paper writing because of the extensions you can build around it. Google Search is already integrated with a nice interface, and I could imagine that the same will happen with search in Google Scholar, PubMed, Scopus, etc.
    Bora, I think that Google will provide just the basic system and it is up to third-party developers to come up with cool science-related extensions. Google Wave should be publicly available for ScienceOnline’10 and I’m sure we have a number of science-related extensions by then. Cameron Neylon is coordinating some of these efforts.

  4. Cameron Neylon says:

    Martin, great post. Will try to get mine up today or at least by tomorrow. In terms of Science Online’10 I think it will be reasonable to expect to have a few things up an running by then. Google themselves will probably have their hands full with the beta but they are interested in what we are proposing to do.
    I’m currently looking at some funding options and we will try to roll out whatever we can to people as soon as the beta is public. I would suggest looking at a SciOn’10 session in around October once we have a clearer idea of where things are going. I’d be hopeful of having a prototype reference formatting Robot and a few other things available by then. Looking at what is involved in writing Robots it does seem very straightforward. The biggest issue is likely to be making them robust and interoperable.

  5. Martin Fenner says:

    Two more practical points: Google Wave looks (and works) great on an iPhone, and I haven’t seen any support for printing yet.

  6. Henry Gee says:

    Yes, Martin, but what is it?

  7. Martin Fenner says:

    Herny, Google Wave is email re-invented with the technology we have today. Similarly to these two mobile phones, the result looks very different:

  8. Anna Croft says:

    Of course all this serves to frustrate me more that I don’t have an account yet.

  9. Bora Zivkovic says:

    Of course all this serves to frustrate me more that I was not at SciFoo this year 😉

  10. Martin Fenner says:

    Anna and Bora, the purpose of this blog post was certainly not to frustrate you. To put it differently: we will be struggling with slow and buggy software that isn’t even beta software for the next few months, and will spend time writing and debugging extensions, so that by the time Google Wave is released to the public, you will have a nice piece of software that can actually be used to do something…

  11. Martin Fenner says:

    And the “Google Wave Developer Blog”: says that all the 20.000 people that requested an account via the “Google Wave Sandbox request Form”: should get an account within the next month. So fill out the Sandbox request form if you haven’t done so already.

  12. Henry Gee says:

    Am still confused, in a bus/stations kind of way. Please would someone give me a succinct summary of what GoogleWave is, rather than one’s reaction to it, or asking me to watch an hour and a half of a self-congratulatory Google demo?

  13. Martin Fenner says:

    Henry, as I said: Google Wave is a really nice way to do email. Ask Alf Eaton or Timo Hannay to give you a demo.

  14. Henry Gee says:

    Looks like a mash-up of Google Mail and Facebook. I guess you had to be there …

  15. Heather Etchevers says:

    Martin, what is the advantage to scientists of instant messaging? I stupidly went ahead and put a cute little add-in to my browser where I get IM-like updates from my essentially scientwist contacts – and it’s highly distracting, if entertaining. Not exactly conducive to correcting manuscripts or any other collaborative activity, for that matter.
    I don’t mean to throw away the baby with the bathwater, but following on Eva’s take-down of FriendFeed and Henry’s relevant confusion above, why should we be excited about this *particular* tool? How could it be more helpful than a lab wiki and sharing things via GoogleDocs already, for example?

  16. Anna Croft says:

    I can see some good advantages with the real time integration in monitoring data-streams (yes, could be distracting), and in monitoring student/postdoc activity remotely. I think the key is to use that feature when required (email in itself can get quite distracting).
    It seems like it can more seamlessly integrate between things like a wiki and docs, so no need to go through the cut and paste stage. It is this integration, I think, that will set Wave apart from the multitude of tools we currently have for doing the same tasks (not that it does a new task).
    @Bora – that too! :)
    @Martin, still waiting for the application to be processed.

  17. Ken Doyle says:

    I share some of Henry’s confusion, but it looks like Wave is a (purportedly) better way of doing things we already have now. I guess it will make more sense if/when I can actually use it.

  18. Martin Fenner says:

    @Heather, the instant messaging part can indeed be distracting. But it is a really elegant solution when several people simultaneously edit the same document, better than the versioning that for example wikis are doing.
    The nice thing about Google Wave is that in combines Email, IM and Wiki. Typical use case: an abstract you want to submit for a conference. With Google Wave you send the abstract around, and people can both edit the text and add their comments (both at the end or in the text). This works much nicer than either email or a Wiki.

  19. Henry Gee says:

    @Ken _I share some of Henry’s confusion_
    I doubt it. My confusion is unique. What you feel is your own confusion, to which you are entitled.

  20. Ian Mulvany says:

    Do you have a list of google wave account names for some people that I can add to my account?
    – Ian

  21. Martin Fenner says:

    Ian, yes I’ve added a number of people to my Google Wave address book, including at least 10 people that will attend Science Online London. I will add you to some interesting Waves so you can see who else already has an account.

  22. LakshmiNarayananan V says:

    Just a bit curious, what will happen if someone wants to delete a wave? is the original copy of the wave lost? and what will happen to the other people who wanna use the wave?

  23. Martin Fenner says:

    Very good question. Currently you simply can’t delete a Wave, but I don’t know how this will work once Wave is out of beta testing.

  24. Shaine Mata says:

    Here we are a few months later. Google Wave has been opened up to everybody. How is this affecting use of GW in your line of work now that more collaborators are able to access it?