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Good idea: Google Wave

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"Were you saying this is a Twitter-killer?" Google Wave's three creators, fresh from their baby's first outing in front of the press, look embarrassed and say nothing. "Oh sorry," the tech journalist continues innocently. "Was that off-record?"

Google Wave is the latest product from the developers behind Google Maps, a new tentacle sprouting from the all-enveloping online leviathan that nobody is quite sure whether they love or hate. What is Wave? It's hard to say. Quite possibly it's just another form of online communication. But on the strength of the standing ovation it received at its unveiling, it might just replace social networking, instant messaging - oh yes, and email as we know it.

As Jens Rasmussen, one of Google Wave's developers, was happy to point out (once he was back on the record), email was invented before the internet. The medium is different, but in essence an email is more or less the same as a letter. Fifteen years later, the online world is capable of something a little more sophisticated - hence Google Wave, which at first glance looks both brilliant and slightly overwhelming.

Jens and his brother Lars first came up with the idea in 2004, but the Google Maps project took precedence, and so Wave has only really been in development since 2007. The plan, as the brothers and their fellow developer Stephanie Hannon insist, is for something far more ambitious.

A Wave is a sort of cross between an email and an instant message: you can leave a message for someone who is offline, or start a conversation with someone online, or start a Wave with multiple participants and do both. You can take part in several Waves at the same time, conduct a mixture of private and public conversations within one Wave, or embed one in your blog. You can share photos, maps or weather forecasts instantly. And you can add "robots", or programs, to a Wave as you might with your Facebook profile. So you can indulge in collaborative piano-playing (for example) or, more usefully, instantly translate your messages into any one of the 40 languages understood by a program called Rosy. (Although, if you'd like your message to read as if it was written by the Muppets' Swedish Chef - and yes, that really is an option - you will need to use a different program.)

Google reports that the initial reaction to Wave, now being trialled by 6,000 users, has been fairly positive - but then, it would. The next couple of weeks will be the real test: from 30 September, Google will be sending out 100,000 invitations to potential Wave users. Then it will start to become clear whether this is the future of communication, or just a confusing addition to the already cacophonous noise of online chatter.

This article appears in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter