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Will Google's Wave Wash over UC?

If you go by the strict definition of unified communications (from Wikipedia, for example), the concept is really little beyond wrapping a consistent GUI around voice, email, IM, and fax communications. There's premises UC, driven by software vendors and IT giants. There's UC in the cloud and UC in the network. There's even UC and collaboration. But it still boils down to a consistent way of doing what we always do.Google apparently thinks more is needed. The guys who invented Google Maps decided they needed to develop a model for next-gen communication that did more than put a pretty mask on Alexander Graham Bell. What they came up with was Google Wave, and it converts the potential for social integration, cloud hosting, and virtual UC that I've blogged about into a reality.

Wave is available in specification form now, and there are a number of developers already working on implementation of Wave Servers. Google's "sandbox" is also accepting limited applications today. The program is expected to open up fully to developers in late summer from what I hear, and will be available as a Google service this fall.

A quick look at Wave can be deceiving; the Wave Client looks like an integrated email/IM client that doesn't offer voice services or fax or anything that most out-of-the-box UC solutions have had for years. It's easy to dismiss it as a threat, or even as something significant, but if you look deeper into what the developer program built around Wave is already starting to do, you find something truly different.

Wave isn't about GUIs, it's about topics or context. A Wave (which consists of "wavelets," "blips" of conversation, and documents) is persistent and stateful in that it records past activity for review and catch-up. If you join a Wave late, you can look back to see what happened. You can cooperatively edit things, comment and review, and see each other's work. It's a kind of combination of email, IM, chat, wikis, and whiteboards. But the inventors said specifically that they wanted to develop a model of communications that broke the old telephony mold, and what makes that possible is how Wave can be extended.

You can view a Wave Client as a kind of browser and put "gadgets" into it the same way you'd add them to iGoogle or OpenSocial. A Gadget in Wave is a combination of an HTML sub-screen and a persistent data store that lives where the Wave is hosted. Gadgets can do a lot of display-oriented things but they can also integrate other services into Waves.

The way Google proposes to do this is through another Wave concept called a "Robot." Robots are virtual users of the Wave that are actually software processes. They can administer the Wave, handling what happens when people are added or removed, for example. They can also provide a gateway between Waves and services like voice or video or Twitter or any popular IM/SMS service. Robots combined with Gadgets can give a Wave the look of UC/UCC.

The look of UC/UCC perhaps, but from a different slant. Remember that Waves are built around topics and not around services. A good example of Wave usage is in health care, for a kind of "patient chart" application (one I've actually proposed in the Wave developer forum). If a Wave were created when a patient was checked into a hospital, the Wave could have a link to the tests that had been taken, doctors' and nurses' notes, and even real-time telemetry if the patient was being monitored continuously. Any new specialist could quickly get up to speed by reading the Wave. Of course this would mean having a terminal device (a tablet, for example) instead of a physical chart, but that's been proposed anyway-done in some places, in fact. If you integrate voice into the Wave, specialists could talk for a consult even after the patient went home, and they'd all see the same thing and have the complete history.

Another interesting feature of Wave is that it's a "federation model" where multiple Wave Servers cooperate with each other to support users and share resources, even defining independent wavelets that are then composed across boundaries to create Waves. This makes Wave ideal for inter-company relationships. Imagine a trouble ticket as a Wave, with user and provider sharing information but with everyone having the right to control access and even host their own piece.

A topical GUI for communications and collaboration is more powerful than a service-based or functional GUI, but it can embrace communications tools in any form, including UC. There is no reason why virtually any UC tool that has APIs couldn't be integrated into Wave and be orchestrated by Waves around various topics and issues that are important enough to act as the basis for ongoing discussion. Since those are the most valuable issues to users/buyers, that would make UC tools part of a critical value proposition. UC/UCC integrated with Waves could be very powerful, and could be the first real proactive driver of UC the market has known.

Wave might also wash away a lot of UC/UCC. Unified communications isn't a new way to communicate, it's a way of organizing existing ways. In nearly every case, the same tools that let a UC GUI compose a communications panel for a user would also let a Wave integrate those same tools. Today, UC providers could create incremental value in Wave implementations, providing perhaps a single universal API that could be exploited by Wave Robots and Gadgets to obtain access to services and coordinate presence across multiple Waves. But those missions don't require UC, and developers are certain to exploit the open Wave APIs to build solutions that don't need UC. Google is almost surely going to integrate Google Voice into Wave, the first step in creating a fully functional "topic-based" UC.

New ideas are always a combination of promise and threat. All too often, incumbents see too much of the latter and as a result give up too much of the former. It could happen here.