Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Google Wave, and the death of CommYou As We Know It

I've been putting off writing this entry for a week now, but I really should just wrestle with it.

I've spent much of the past two weeks playing with Google Wave, experimenting with it, and talking with people about it. Right now, I'm reading into the nascent project to build an open-source version of it. (Which Google claims to support 100% -- they're trying to develop a whole new Internet infrastructure here, and are fully aware that nobody's going to take it seriously if they have the only implementation.)

A lot of people have been asking, "What the heck *is* Wave?". The answer is complicated, and I'll get into it more in a later series of posts, but the short answer is, "CommYou".

It's really pretty startling, not least because I'm fairly sure that this isn't quite what Wave set out to focus on. When you look at what it is good at, Wave is principally a co-editing system. It's a generalized infrastructure for allowing people to work on Stuff together, live in realtime as well as more gradually. It is basically taking a lot of ideas that have been floating around for many years (not least, in the game industry), and applying them in a pretty rigorous and generalized way.

But of course, CommYou has always been largely about that, just specifically for conversation. I've talked a lot about "multi-modal" or "semi-realtime", and this is exactly what I've been trying to describe: conversations that speed up nicely when multiple people are present, slow down when zero or one are there, but generally keep going and stay relatively distinct and on-topic. The latter point is essential: like CommYou, Wave is about *accomplishing* stuff together, which is what distinguishes it from a random chat room. The ethic of Wave, like CommYou, is that off-topic threads should (ideally) get taken to a separate wave, so conversations are broken down by community *and* topic.

They wound up arriving at bloody near exactly the same answers I did, enough so that I've occasionally found myself wondering if they hacked into my server and stole my ToDoList. Heavyweight threads: check. Semi-realtime interactive conversation: check. Summary window that live-updates when a conversation changes, and shows when and how much changed: check. UI that efficiently pops open an new-message window below any random message: check. Tracking which messages you've already read, so you can catch up on new stuff easily: check. Metadata and plugins: check. Etc, etc -- while it's not identical, it is *very* close to what I've had in my mind when trying to describe CommYou's design.

Make no mistake, Wave is damned cool -- there are a lot of nay-sayers, but they're mostly missing the point: they're taking an early alpha (which is what we've got now), full of bugs and lacking in features and integration, and saying "there's no there there". But having spent the past two years thinking about this stuff, I see *exactly* where Google is going with this, and it's a game-changer. We're at the beginning of a new model of communication and collaboration, probably more important than the rise of IM, nearly as important as the Web itself. (And vastly more important than Twitter and its micro-blogging ilk, which will gradually be subsumed into the Wave-like systems over the next 2-4 years.) Many people have complained that there's nothing *new* in Wave, which particularly misses the point: as I've long said about CommYou, it's not about coming up with a single new-and-revolutionary idea, it's about taking all the existing communication models and combining them *correctly*.

But the sense of "squish" is palpable, and I'm still wrapping my brain around it, and processing the emotions. Mind, Wave doesn't yet do *everything* that was in the CommYou design, not even everything that is already in it. But there is nothing in CommYou that would be *hard* to do in Wave, so I expect them to catch up to me fairly fast, and they already do a lot that I hadn't even contemplated: Wave's purpose is similar to CommYou's, but it is even more grandiosely ambitious.

Most importantly, they've almost casually swatted down my business plan. The idea was always that CommYou would be a cheap-or-free consumer service, as a loss leader for selling integrated high-quality conversation to websites. But Google has already announced that they will be giving away site embedding, and have even begun to demo it. So I'm left without the possible future income stream that justified all that work and present forgone salary.

I may be ambitious, but I'm not dumb, and I don't like tilting at windmills. It's one thing to grab at the brass ring of a startup, knowing that the odds are weak. It's quite another to try to compete against Google giving something away for free, especially now that they're starting to realize what they've got. I'm not going to win this one, at least not in the way I've been thinking.

So the existing CommYou plans are looking to be toast. I'm crushed, but part of surviving in the startup world is being good at crying in your beer for a little while, then picking up, moving on and getting the hell over it.

All that said, I don't think it's all going to be entirely for naught. Those two years of work have taught me a huge amount, not least about how a system like this can and must work. The open-source project is still pretty early, and I have a huge amount I can contribute to it. I've still got the passion for this project (which, remember, started as me trying to build the conversation system I've always wanted), and a lot of relevant knowledge. So I'm diving in head-first, trying to catch up to all the developers who have been in the loop for five months already while I was in denial about it.

We may even see the return of CommYou. We'll see how it plays out, but as I said -- there is a lot that Wave doesn't yet do. They've made great progress on the conversation problem, but they're missing a lot yet and they have made some decisions I don't necessarily agree with. (In particular, that realtime conversation is character-by-character Talk style, not message-by-message IM style: that's cool, but I think it's a mixed blessing.) And they've scarcely touched the community side of things, which has always been as important to me as the conversation part.

We'll see. I probably can't justify doing this as a true part-time job any more, so it'll have to turn spare-time, and I don't have enough of that. But there's a strong temptation to help the open-source project get up to speed, and then revive CommYou as an experimental variation of Wave that ignores the co-editing part entirely and focuses on conversation and community. If so, I'm going to do it right this time, as a pure open-source project end-to-end, using seriously cutting-edge tech. Programming geeks out there, think about whether you might be interested in playing.

BTW, for those who asked for invitations: sorry, they're mostly gone. I got a lot more people asking than I had invites, so I've been doling them out gradually and carefully, but I'm down to a single one left. (They mostly went to people who have been particularly helpful on CommYou, unsurprisingly -- those are folks who I know have a clue about this stuff, and have been demonstrably passionate about using it.)
Tags: commyou, wave

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