Wave is perhaps the most talked about web technology in recent times. The ostensibly impressive collaboration and unified communication platform was launched a while back in typical Google fashion – under a closed, perhaps permanent beta, invitation-only release. Even with the initial 1,00,000 invites, it had tons of mixed coverage and reactions. Some are calling it a confusing jumble of non-linear communication, resulting in something even less productive than email itself, while others are sitting on the fence reserving their judgment for later. Many more are embracing the beta preview and even more still are desperately waiting for their invites.
Not jumping to conclusions about the usefulness of Wave seems to be a more logical approach, because clearly Wave is an on-going work in progress. Besides, since Google has made it an open source protocol, developers can design their own interface and you never know who will leverage the API to come up with a revolutionary idea. Coming to what Wave does, it has put instant messaging, email and wiki-like collaboration on the same platform – with the added twist of doing things in real time. Email, the web’s primary means of communication and makeshift collaboration, has been around for donkey’s years. And much like the thought behind Chrome OS (Google’s browser-based operating system), the guys at Google Wave too, seem to have got up one day and decided “hey email is so 90s, let’s come up with something better”. Google Wave aims to do just that – create an all new protocol that goes away from mailbox-to-mailbox email. In Wave, you have a hosted form of communication where metaphorically you have one email opened to which you can invite others. This should theoretically create a world without the dreaded “Reply all” button, which causes so much confusion in large email threads. Additionally, the Wave protocol is entirely open source, so developers can create their own interface and put it to better use through the API.
Even so, the idea of unified communication has been around for quite some time. In fact, there are several initiatives out there that have been doing exactly this in some form or the other. Some have been around a long time too. Many of these alternatives have been locked up in the enterprise-level commercial sphere while some are free, but unheard of. Some are online following a similar hosted format to collaboration, while some like Gobby or SubEthaEdit require a client. Sure, Google Wave has managed to take enterprise-level software, juice it up, put a nice user-friendly shell around it and bring it to the ordinary consumer. But here we will look at other not-so-hyped options, and surprisingly some might even appeal to you more.
Unified collaboration, project management, leverage fi le sharing – they’re all heady jargon. At the root of it all, Wave is primarily a document creation tool – much like wikis – but in real time. You thought Wave was the only to do that? You’re wrong. When Wave demoed for the first time in the hour and a half long video, people gasped at the sight of being able to see what your collaborators are typing in real time. But it’s not the only web app out there that can let you do that. Take Etherpad. It gives you everything – right from real time editing of documents, to rich text to a small chat window docked in the side bar. All this power-packed functionality in the simplest easy to use interface – which strangely until now, Google was renowned for. The current state, in which Google Wave is functioning, with hundreds of people “collaborating” on waves which don’t really have a direction or goal, gets confusing really quickly. The picture/video sharing functionality does get thumbs up, but collaboration cannot really be centered on picture sharing – it remains just an added tool. Instead, the focused, minimalist form of document creation restricted to eight users offered by Etherpad, is better in most collaboration use case scenarios.
EtherPad in action
Etherpad offers some very interesting features. You can save any number of revisions which act as restore points. After you are done creating the write-up, there are multiple options to export the document as a Word, PDF, text and open document. There is even an undo/redo function, the lack of which is quite a pain in Google Wave, as we’ve mentioned in the past. Time Slider, the Etherpad equivalent of the Timeline feature of Google Wave is absolutely smooth. It literally plays back the process of creating the document smoothly, almost like a movie. The process of getting in collaborators is also very simple – just mail or IM them a link. And the best part is that the interface is light and hence really fast. Also, work can begin instantly – no sign ups, registration or invites!
It’s no surprise to us that Etherpad’s official blog recently announced that they have been acquired by Google.
“Why work alone?” is their motto, and it’s quite true. This is a similar tool following a server hosted format for collaboration. Built on Silverlight, it is more basic than Etherpad, but definitely more stylized. It has done what Adobe’s Buzzword did to a simple concept like Google Doc’s word processor – putting a jazzy shell around a simple technology. It has standard functionality like saving revisions, but you can’t export. Use this little tool if you want to start off quickly and the work you are collaborating on is not long and cumbersome.
Scribblar is yet another online collaboration tool which allows sharing images and video much like wave, but it’s better classified as a white-boarding app. It strictly does not compare to the others featured here so far, because document creation is missing. Scribblar does feature a whiteboard and so in brainstorming use cases it comes of great use – more than Wave, in fact. The format followed by Scribblar is pretty simple. You can register or start off with a single click. The application creates a room for every team and that URL can be shared with others for calling other collaborators to that room. With live chat, whiteboard, and fi le sharing, and no user limits, it makes for a fun web utility.
Notepub is an online note taking app that allows for public collaboration. Its drag and drop features for adding images to a note comes the closest to Wave. You can start a note easily from the home page. Once you’ve created a note, you can share it by making it public and sending the link to those whom you want to collaborate with. If you were to create a note describing pictures from a recent holiday with friends, you can share it directly via twitter or Facebook. You can also link notes to other notes and hence there is a considerable amount of community play that comes into the picture. Still, this one is pretty low on usability and won’t engage you as much as some of the others.
This one is touted as perhaps the closest one can get to a Google Wave clone, and has been around for quite some time. ShareFlow debuted after Wave burst on to the scene last May at their developers’ conference, so it’s not quite clear who copied whom. Perhaps ShareFlow just beat Google to it by making their service available to the consumers sooner than Google – without those coveted invites. ShareFlow works beautifully as a replacement for sending group mails for decision making or sharing fi les. It has support for events, calendar events, and even a unique email address where you can send stuff that you want pinned to a particular flow. A focused environment is called a flow (like a Wave) and can be thought of as a folder containing all your fi les and conversations. It fails when it comes to document creation as unlike in Google Wave wherein at the end of the wave when you collapse all comment bubbles, you’re left with a usable document.
Shareflow with near real time conversations
“SynchroEdit is a browser-based simultaneous multi-user editor, a form of same time, different-place group ware. It allows multiple users to edit a single web-based document at the same time, and it continuously synchronizes all changes so that users always have the same version.”, says the web site. Sounds familiar? Well it is... And it’s probably the oldest player in this game and hence retains that jaded web 1.0 look. But the interface itself looked quite good featuring rich text options. However, at the time of testing the server was down (and may even be permanently so, by the looks of the cob-web ridden home).
Based on Air, Text flow is perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing and yet powerful document collaboration tool out there. Apart from simple collaboration that can be achieved in near real time, it also offers version management of documents. It analyses multiple versions of a single document, conveniently highlighting changes in each version compared to the original, and allows you to choose and refuse through suggested changes to the document. Currently sign-ups are frozen on the textflow web site and it is invitation only.
Greener on the other site?
While all of these apps featured here serve you in most use cases, at times even better than Google Wave, they lack Wave’s extension and gadget-ability. With that Wave can be put to use in virtually infinite scenarios. But do you really want everything? Or would you rather be focused on the need at hand?