Inside Google's Mountain View skunkwork operations, tucked away from the company's main headquarters, about four dozen hand-picked developers gave Google's new "Wave" service its first run-through today. The service is pre-alpha -- geekspeak for software that's still in heavy development -- and the focus group is being paid not in cash, but in sandwiches and soft drinks.
Talk about a throwback scene. I have to blink to remember that I'm not back at Netscape headquarters circa 1998. The absence of Skittles tips me off.
What's Wave, and why is it energizing developers in a way we haven't seen in a decade? According to project leader Lars Rasmussen, it's email "if it were invented today." It's also a new way to communicate with others over the internet.
Wait a minute: New email means no need for the much-maligned Microsoft Outlook. Could Wave, being pitched by Google as a way to bring people and companies together in a utopian future, actually be its secret weapon to make Microsoft obsolete?
Think about it. Look down at the bottom of your screen, and you're probably seeing (as I am) at least three browsers opened to different operations: Twitter, Gmail, finance, a blog. Add in Outlook, and you've got a lot of mouse-moving and clicking ahead of you every time your computer so much as beeps. What if all that goes away, and you can find everything stacked up neatly in one place. If you're a heavy Twitterhead, think "Tweetdeck" with a little more personalization.
The example Rasmussen shows me is the blog you just commented on. Instead of having to click back to see who else has commented, the Wave gives you a steady stream of information about the blog. Same with email, and any other chatting you're doing. It's admittedly a Grand Central Station of information that at first makes my head spin (imagine this much stuff condensed onto the screen of your smart phone!), but I have to admit: it is all in one place.
Microsoft has coasted for so many years on its Outlook, it's almost impossible to imagine a world without it. But while Google is not listing "obliterate Microsoft" in its goals for Wave, imagine if it really succeeds. For that to happen, lots of other companies, and lots of users, have to get onboard. A wave is only powerful if it can rise, and then keep going.
If Google's Wave rises, and gets enough momentum, look out. Microsoft may get very wet.