Introduction

A photograph of a mural depicting a cute cartoon turtle riding a surfboard on a big wave

The Ultimate Wave Adventure by JEFFREY’S MURALS

Google Wave is a product that’s trying to do something massive to the way we communicate online. Its stated goal is to be what email might look like if it were invented today. A number of other services are labeled as competitors to Google Wave, including the recently updated Google Docs (which is too new for me to comment on in this article), but I wanted to take a look at which of these services are real competition. Below are the services who show the most promise at becoming the next generation of online communication.

Microsoft Sharepoint

Microsoft Sharepoint is a suite of content management tools to maintain and collaborate on documents. While it was never sold as a replacement to email, it was held up as one of the products Google Wave was meant to compete against. But as Steve Gaitten of Bamboo Nation points out, Wave competes with Outlook, not Sharepoint.

It might be possible for Microsoft to transform Outlook in some significant way that expands it beyond email into some sort of super email client. It might even integrate it into Sharepoint a lot further. The truth is, email is Google Wave’s biggest competition. It might be outdated and rough, but it’s the most popular form of communication on the internet. If anything stands a chance at beating Wave, it’s the service that Wave is trying to beat. If email innovation can keep up with user demand, it might just remain the top dog for another 40 years. If Outlook can maintain the large slice of the pie it has, while innovating on top of email it could still be competing into the future.

Novell Pulse

This is exactly the kind of “competition” Google was hoping for when they built Wave. As I’ve said before, Wave’s only hope of replacing email is federation. Only by giving users the choice of Wave provider will users find one that works for them. Novell Pulse might even become a more loved Wave client, and I think that would actually make Google happy. Personally, I’m eagerly awaiting a Pulse preview account.

SAP Streamwork

This tool was touted as a Google Wave competitor while in Beta (with the code name 12Sprints or Constellation).

The tool turns out to be a collaboration space for making decisions. It’s not a complete replacement for email, but I’m not sure that was ever their intention. Streamwork allows a team to collaborate and add gadgets to enhance the process.

“It was clear we needed to work together,” Meyer said. “We’re excited about what they’re doing, they’re excited about what we’re doing.” Users will be able to share content between the two platforms, he said. - David Meyer, reported by Computer World

It will be interesting to see what sort of integration they build into it.

Shareflow and Toqbox

Much like Streamwork, these tools are not marketed as email replacements, but were both touted as Google Wave competitors. What they do is allow users to collaborate on documents in real-time. If these sorts of services were better integrated into email (perhaps using GMail’s new oAuth tools) they might be more likely candidates. Otherwise they are really only competing with Google Docs and others of that kind.

ccBetty, Syphir, Etacts, Xobni, Rapportive et al.

Products such as ccBetty and the others mentioned enhance email. They exist to remove the holes in email by providing additional information, embedded media, faster searching, or simplified discussion. Some work on GMail, others on Outlook, others work outside any email service by CC-ing a special address onto each email you wish to turn into a discussion. The problem with all of these tools as competition for Wave is that the email protocol just doesn’t take these sorts of tools into consideration, so they’re limited by how many services the developers can write for. That is, each service might support Outlook or GMail, but not all the other smaller players in the marketplace. Where Google Wave has this model beat is by including extension support from day one, allowing developers to enhance Wave in whatever ways they can imagine. Any service that federates with Google Wave will also support these extensions, making it a truly open, extensible experience.

EtherPad

This collaboration tool gets its own special crossed out spot because it was one of the strongest, simplest competitors in the collaboration space, but was bought by Google! The developers have obviously since been put to work on Google Docs, as evidenced by the announcement of the recent update.

Facebook.

This one scares me a little. In some ways, Google Wave is the anti-Facebook. Where Wave is built on open technology, uses an open protocol and federates with other services, Facebook is a “walled garden” and keeps users inside their service. Both systems let developers make extensions and apps that use the platform, and Facebook seems to be slowly inching towards including some of the collaboration features that have been missing so far. Facebook has a huge user base, and could easily become some sort of defacto go-to communication platform for the masses. Currently though there are no obvious moves to open up the platform further, making it unlikely to catch on in business, where email still rules.

Twitter (+ Buzz and other Social Public Messaging)

Currently, none of the services in their current form pose a threat to email - they’re too limited with their 140 character limits and lack of in-line collaboration. But Twitter (or a more open version of it at least) is the product I think has the most real chance of beating Google Wave at becoming the communication platform of the future.

A distributed network (integrated with Twitter of course) that updates in real-time, with an API could have many people needing their email less and less. Once you can get updates from your favourite companies and all your friends are on the service, why would you need it? Throw in an extension or two, enhanced private messaging, and you have a very compelling product that could steal users away from email. The platform is so new, no one really knows where it could go in the future, and I suspect it will give Google Wave and traditional email a run for their money. It could be Twitter, or Buzz, Status.Net or a new player we’ve never heard of, but the idea has the strongest traction of any I’ve seen.

Something completely new

So those are my thoughts about Google Wave’s true competition. Of course, a company could come out of the blue with a product so completely new and exciting it amasses a huge audience that completely abandons email. This is the least likely of all I think, as I’ve stated before I think Wave is our best chance at replacing email wholesale. Alternatively, email will be killed by slow changes to the next generation of social communication. The chances of it happening are dependant on the whims of companies who are trying to make a buck, not replace email so I’m not holding my breath. Email will be replaced by something federated, open, extensible and easy to use. I’ve taken my best shot at predicting what it could be.

What are your thoughts? Is Google Wave our best hope, or is there something even more obvious that could take email’s place?