Saturday, May 30, 2009

Fwd: Google Wave: What Might Email Look Like If It Were Invented Today?

Ranjith Ravindran


Yesterday's Google I/O keynote highlighted the power of HTML 5 to match functionality long experienced in desktop applications. This morning, Google plans to announce an HTML 5-based application - still very much in the early stages of development - that represents a profound advance in the state of the art.

Lars and Jens Rasmussen, the original creators of Google Maps, will take the stage to unveil their latest project, Google Wave. As Lars describes it, "We set out to answer the question: What would email look like if we set out to invent it today?"

That is exactly the right question, and one that every developer should be asking him or herself. The world of computing has changed, profoundly, yet so many of our applications bear the burden of decades of old thinking. We need to challenge our assumptions and re-imagine the tools we take for granted. It's perhaps no accident that this project, carried out secretly at Google's Sydney office over the past two years, had the code name Walkabout. That's the Australian aboriginal tradition of going off for an extended period to retrace the songlines and learn the world anew.

In answering the question, Jens, Lars, and team re-imagined email and instant-messaging in a connected world, a world in which messages no longer need to be sent from one place to another, but could become a conversation in the cloud. Effectively, a message (a wave) is a shared communications space with elements drawn from email, instant messaging, social networking, and even wikis.

It turns out that Jens had the idea back in 2004, when Google first acquired the company that became Google Maps. As Lars tells the story:

We were excited to join Google and help create what would become Google Maps. But we also started thinking about what might come next for us after maps.

As always, Jens came up with the answer: communication. He pointed out that two of the most spectacular successes in digital communication, email and instant messaging, were originally designed in the '60s to imitate analog formats — email mimicked snail mail, and IM mimicked phone calls. Since then, so many different forms of communication had been invented — blogs, wikis, collaborative documents, etc. — and computers and networks had dramatically improved. So Jens proposed a new communications model that presumed all these advances as a starting point....

We started with a set of tough questions:

  • Why do we have to live with divides between different types of communication — email versus chat, or conversations versus documents?
  • Could a single communications model span all or most of the systems in use on the web today, in one smooth continuum? How simple could we make it?
  • What if we tried designing a communications system that took advantage of computers' current abilities, rather than imitating non-electronic forms?

Responding in Context

Let's say I want to communicate with someone. I start a wave, just as I might start an email message. The recipient(s) see an incoming wave, just as they see an email today. Where the magic starts is with replies. In email, you have the choice of including no context, only a portion of the message you're replying to, or the whole thing. In the first case, you need to go back to the original message for context; in the second, you have wasted copies going back and forth. Come into the middle of a long thread and you may be replying to a discussion that has already moved on or covered the point you want to express. But what if there were only one message, shared in the cloud? Now, your comment on the second paragraph is attached directly to that point in the conversation. There are no redundant copies of portions of the message, as replies are seen in context.

As you can see in the screenshot below (click to enlarge), a Wave inbox looks much like an email inbox. But look to the right, and you can see how the replies are embedded right into the middle of the original message, so Stephanie's question about what camera Jens used for his photos appears right in context.


Now, you might ask how well this works for long, complex messages rather than the short one shown in the demo. I don't know the answer, but I suspect that Wave will be even stronger in that case. Our experience with collaborative editing of book manuscripts at O'Reilly suggests that the amount and quality of participation goes up radically when comments can be interleaved at a paragraph level.

Is it a particle or a wave? It's both.

First generation email/IM integration let you see when someone was online, and opt to instant message someone rather than send them an email. Wave simply erases the distinction.

If both people are online at the same time, a wave acts just like an instant message -- except that you see each character as it is typed, just like in subethaedit. "In our experience, a lot of time in IM is spent waiting for the other person to press 'Done'," says Lars. (However, it is possible to set Wave to hold your messages till you are done.)

A key point here is that Google's relentless focus on reducing the latency of online actions is bringing the online experience closer and closer to our real world experience of face-to-face communication. When you're talking with someone, you know what someone is saying before they finish their sentence. You can respond, or even finish their sentence for them. So too with Wave.

The real-time connectedness of Wave is truly impressive. Drop photos onto a wave and see the thumbnails appear on the other person's machine before the photos are even finished uploading.

Step by step playback draws a cheer

Let's say you are added to a conversation (a wave) that has been going on for a long time? You can be added at any relevant point, not just the end. But even cooler, you can do a playback of the entire evolution of the conversation.

But wait: there's more! Let's say you want to edit your message (or even a message that was written by another participant in the wave). Yes, you can. The original author is notified, but every participant can see that the message has been modified, and if they want, can replay the changes.

This leads to a change in behavior: conversations become shared documents.
The screenshot below shows a simple example, as Gregory and Casey collaborate to produce a good answer to Dan's question. As Stephanie Hannon, the product manager for Googe Wave, said to me, "In Wave, you don't have to make the choice between discussing and collaborating."


As anyone who's used version control knows, a document with lots of discussion and edits can become pretty messy. No problem. You can export an edited wave as a new wave, and start over. "One of our design principles," says Lars, "is that the product of a wave can be as important as the original wave."

Nor do you need to include everyone in every part of a conversation. Essentially, Lars, says, "waves are tree-shaped sets of messages. You can shape a subtree, or a sub-conversation and limit the set of participants in any way you like."

Wave as a Platform

Wave is more than a product. As Lars explains:

The Google Wave product (available as a developer preview) is the web application people will use to access and edit waves. It's an HTML 5 app, built on Google Web Toolkit. It includes a rich text editor and other functions like desktop drag-and-drop (which, for example, lets you drag a set of photos right into a wave).

Google Wave can also be considered a platform with a rich set of open APIs that allow developers to embed waves in other web services, and to build new extensions that work inside waves.

The Google Wave protocol is the underlying format for storing and the means of sharing waves, and includes the "live" concurrency control, which allows edits to be reflected instantly across users and services. The protocol is designed for open federation, such that anyone's Wave services can interoperate with each other and with the Google Wave service. To encourage adoption of the protocol, we intend to open source the code behind Google Wave.

Anyone who's followed my writing knows that I'm a huge fan of simple systems with extensible architectures. So I was excited to see that the team didn't lard lots of features into the core product, but instead added new features via the Wave APIs, much as they hope third party developers will do.

One useful extension, Polly (Poll-y) lets you incorporate polls into a wave. In the wave shown below, participants are asked whether they can make it to a party. Responses appear immediately in the wave. That's the way these things ought to work! No jumping to a website to see the results of an Evite or a poll.


(I should note that the ever-prescient Jon Udell showed how to hack existing tools to similar effect in his 2001 book Practical Internet Groupware. It was one of the books I'm proudest of publishing, despite its commercial failure. It was just too far ahead of its time.)

The API has been used to build a bunch of cool extensions: Bloggy, a blog client, lets you make a blog post as a wave. When people comment, they join the conversation. Spelly is a spell-checker that uses the entire corpus of the web as its dictionary. Linky is a link-recognition engine that is clever enough to recognize that the link you just entered is a YouTube video, or a link to a photo, and give you the option to embed the target of the link into the wave. There's even a twitter client - you can tweet into and out of a wave! And of course, buggy, a bug-reporting tool that can also be a participant in a wave.

Wave can also be used as the base for interactive games. For example, here's a real-time interactive chess game in Wave:


Open Source, Open Protocol, and Federated Wave Clouds

Google wants other providers to adopt Wave - the protocol allows federation between independent Wave clouds. The team hopes that Wave will become as ubiquitous and interoperable as email and instant messaging, not just a Google product.

I support this vision. The Wave team has done a great job, but for Wave to really succeed, it needs to become a new fundamental service on the net. An open protocol means that anyone can build their own Wave services - everything from Wave servers to Wave extensions. But open source means that people can push the envelope in adapting the service to new environments, devices, and use cases.

I'm hopeful that the industry will take up the challenge, and build on what is being shown at Google I/O this morning. Eric Raymond noted that every open source project begins with a plausible promise. There's no question that the plausible promise is on stage this morning. I hope the folks in the audience at Google I/O, as well as those at Yahoo!, Microsoft, and elsewhere, get on the bandwagon as well. I'm eager to move from email and IM to Wave!

Aside: The fact that this application was built using GWT and HTML 5 really emphasizes Vic Gundotra's points from yesterday, that web applications can not only match, but can even beat the functionality of native apps. It's not just HTML 5, though. It's the commitment to the lightweight nature of the web, to real-time, to lightweight components connected by open protocols rather than to monolithic systems.

Make it New!

Ezra Pound once wrote: ""The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth." And elsewhere: "Make it new!"

Even more than the application itself, I love the way Wave doesn't just build on what went before but starts over. In demonstrating the power of the shared, real-time information space, Jens and Lars show a keen understanding of how the cloud changes applications.

When I saw Wave for the first time on Monday, I realized that we're at a kind of DOS/Windows divide in the era of cloud applications. Suddenly, familiar applications look as old-fashioned as DOS applications looked as the GUI era took flight. Now that the web is the platform, it's time to take another look at every application we use today, and ask the same question Lars and Jens asked themselves: "What would this look like if we invented it today instead of twenty-five years ago?"

For more information

The following links may not be live until the end of this morning's keynote at about 10:15 am Pacific time: the eventual home for Google Wave. For now a place to learn more and sign up to be notified when we launch home for the API, documentation and sample code. home for the protocol specs (draft), whitepapers and a discussion forum about the open google wave protocol


The Google I/O demo of Wave is now available on YouTube. It's embedded below:


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Intel Spotlights the Real Rock Stars of the Tech World


Sent to you by Ranji via Google Reader:


via geeksugar by geeksugar on 5/7/09

Sure, you know Steve Jobs, the Woz, and Bill Gates, but do you know the name Ajay Bhatt? He invented the USB, and in this new commercial from Intel he's being given the celebrity treatment - a premise that's equal parts inspiring and amusing.


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Sunday, May 10, 2009

From Times of India

Found a nice article in the times of india today:

Women have been on top for a while now – statistically, we mean. But it was still a surprise to many when engineer Shubhra Saxena topped the

UPSC exam, and the other two in the top three were also women.

The girls-can’t-do-maths variety of misconceptions persist, it seems, but the girls couldn’t care less.

‘Shaadi ho jayegi’
Shilpa Niyogi, who is doing an MTech in anthropology, says, “I topped my college in BTech. My parents and teachers were proud of me, but my relatives asked me how long I’d be studying all these subjects. ‘You’ll get married in a few years,’ they’d say. Now, I’ve also earned a scholarship for higher studies at the Singapore University. In terms of percentage, even if seven-eight women feature in the top 20, it still is high, considering that fewer girls than boys appear for these exams, and out of those who do, almost all make the cut...” Academician Sachin Sharma, who also works as a counsellor in many Delhi schools, says, “No one will believe how many parents want their extremely bright daughters to settle down in the ‘comfortable job’ of a teacher. They ask me to convince their daughter to take up teaching. You name a field where women haven’t made a breakthrough and haven’t shown what they’re capable of.”

‘Maths vaths hai rabba’
Niharika Sharma, currently pursuing an MPhil in plant molecular biology from Delhi University, will soon be moving to Australia for four years to pursue a PhD. “As opposed to the common perception, excelling in subjects like science and maths has nothing to do with one’s gender. Society expects a girl to finally settle down in marital bliss. My family is supportive, but at times, they also worry about my future. They know, however, that I’m not going to sit at home.” “It is still the common perception that girls do well when it come to languages and other subjects that don’t need analytical and reasoning powers,” says Sushmita Ray, an XLRI passout, who’s now working with a financial consultancy firm in Delhi. “When girls top the CBSE exams, everyone says, ‘Let’s see who’s on top at the university level.’ The percentage of girls who take admission in IIMs and IITs is less, but the numbers are slowly increasing. During placements, all the girls from our batch got placed before the boys. This is not to say that they weren’t good enough, but it was heartening to see that the companies were more than forthcoming when it came to recruiting girls.”

‘It’s a girl? How nice!’
Sociologist Rekha Dutta maintains that despite the general sentiment that it’s a more equal society now, somewhere, we’re still stuck in the old notions of what a woman should and can do. “Year after year, girls top the CBSE exams, a higher number of girls pass the exams as compared to boys, bell the CAT, and now, three women have topped the UPSC exams. Everyone thinks we have an egalitarian outlook, but our surprise when we read these things says a lot about our expectations. We’re pleasantly surprised because we’ve been conditioned to assume that boys will do better than girls in such exams, but when girls do better, we sit up and say, ‘Yeh hui na baat’.” Psychologist Anu Goel blames the Indian social setup, which still expects the mother to be at home if the child is unwell. “It’s always said that women make pathetic drivers, and when a girl zooms past them, people assume she’s the aberration. The same mindset also works when we compare boys and girls in the educational field.”

Friday, May 8, 2009

Stay hungry, Stay foolish - the UPSC story !


Sent to you by Ranji via Google Reader:


via Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth by (Rashmi Bansal) on 5/7/09

Sanjay Aakhade, son of a porter in Nashik, has cracked the civil service examination. He secured a rank of 263.

TOI reports: Son of Dnyandeo, an unlettered porter, and Vimal, a beedi worker, growing up was about bringing home some money. He cleaned tables at hotels, worked at a medical store, distributed newspapers and manned an STD booth through his teens.

Although a topper in school, Sanjay dropped out and pursued a course at the Industrial Training Institute; getting a job was priority. He'd attend class from 10 am to 5 pm and work at the STD booth till midnight. "I was a voracious reader and would read whenever there weren't any customers. If I liked something, I would jot it down in a diary,'' recalls Sanjay.

This is what is so amazing. Despite a really hard life, Sanjay did not wallow in self pity and curse his fate. He found a way to learn and grow, within his limited resources. And not for any particular reason. But somewhere deep down I'm sure he knew this was the only way to escape from the prison of circumstance. And make something of himself.

See any 'success' story and you'll find this common trait! They stay hungry - no matter what.

Self-study was what the Marathi-educated Sanjay depended on as he learnt English through newspapers. His drive was recognised by a regular customer, Digambar Vaishyampai, a teacher who started bringing him books and encouraged him to return to studies. It was with his backing that Sanjay enrolled for the HSC exam and subsequently pursued his BA, ranking first in all exams, despite not being able to attend lectures. His family started backing him too. His mother says she can't even read the clock, but wanted her children "to make it big in life''.

A UPSC advertisement Sanjay chanced upon got him interested in the services. He trails off into another incident that further strengthened his resolve-a narration that brings back memories of Slumdog hero Jamaal being interrogated by policemen. "A college friend of mine once had trouble with a cop, who smashed the windshield of his autorickshaw. When I questioned the action, I was thrashed,'' says Sanjay, adding that he could perhaps join the IPS and reform the system.

But achieving his goal wasn't easy. He first gave the UPSC exams with history as his subject in 2006 and failed twice. Although from a minority community, Sanjay applied through the open category as he wanted to play fair. "People would tauntingly call me collector sahib and tell me how life would never change, but I believed otherwise,'' says Sanjay.

This is the 'stay foolish' bit. Never mind what the world says.. you have to believe in yourself.

He married his cousin last year and has a four-month-old son named Yash. His interview in Delhi was his first trip to the capital. "I gave my interview in English, as I didn't want to lose the essence of what I said during translation.'' Employed with an insurance company, he dutifully returned to the rut, praying all along for his results. When his phone rang on May 4, also his birthday, he knew good news was on the way. "My friends called to say I had cracked the exam.'' His newly rented flat buzzed with visitors on Thursday.

"Entering the services will not change our lives at home, but help me change the lives of many others like us.'' He says his background has helped him better understand what the government needs to do. "I will be handling child labour, for instance. I know what it is to be a child labourer."

I think this is certainly true. Sanjay's own experience would make him so much more sensitive to the plight of millions of Indians living on the edge of poverty. Devoid of hope, or opportunity.

Hearty congratulations and warm wishes to Sanjay. Keep the idealism, keep the faith!

Another heartwarming story is that of Maharashtra topper Aniket Mandavgane who secured an all India rank of 29 . The 22-year-old's father takes care of their ancestral temple at Varangaon in Jalgaon.

However Aniket was sent to live in Pune with his grandmother from the age of 5, and that's where but he completed his school and college education. He is a graduate of Sinhagad College of Engineering (2008 batch).

Interestingly, he began preparing while in third year of engineering itself and this was his first shot at the exam. That should certainly enthuse some of you out there to start preparing early if the UPSC is your dream!

Aniket plans to join the IFS.

Then there is 24-year-old Balaji Manjule from Jeor in Solapur, who cleared the exam on his third attempt.

TOI reports: Manjule, who has poor eyesight, studied under a kerosene oil lamp and lost his left eye as he had a cataract that was diagnosed late. "My village does not have electricity and I had no option but to study in such conditions,'' says the 57th ranker, who was asked in the interview if his eyesight would pose a problem at work.

He replied: "Having just one eye has never been a hindrance in achieving anything, not even a high score in the UPSC.''

A few months ago, this Wadar community (one of the most backward communities in the state) boy was also short-listed for the Maharashtra Public Service Commission exam and was offered a posting as a deputy CEO. Manjule's parents are daily wage workers who break stones for building roads. Their son wants to become an IAS officer and "progress of India's countryside'' is high on his agenda.

I think this is real progress. Here's to many more spirited young men and women taking India forward!

P.S. 'Stay Hungry Stay Foolish' is an attitude which applies to all walks of life. And hence it will be the theme of the weekly show on careers I am hosting from this evening on UTVi.

Do tune in if you can - at 7 pm. Channel no 541 on Tata Sky.


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