I never really got the iPod, or the whole mobile music thing. I had a cassette Walkman many years ago, but never used it much, and so didn’t find the thought of being able to listen to my entire music collection whereever I was particularly compelling. But I have a smartphone these days with decent music storage and playback, and a good stereo handsfree set of earbuds, and so I’m writing this on the train to London, and it’s like the world disappears. It’s funny how an ambient technology like music changes our experience so directly. It’s blissfully anti-social: all the inane conversations that bother you when travelling disappear. But then you could say this was a dehumanising thing, cocooning us in a world where we control our environment totally, screening out what might be truly stimulating.
Still mobile music is unusual in this respect. Most of the important trends in software right now stress collaboration and interaction. I was looking by coincidence this morning at the initial presentation of Google’s Wave concept. Google claims it set out to think how we would design email if we started now rather than forty years ago when the idea was first developed. Wave combines email, instant messaging and other social networking and online conferencing elements. I can see that it could be a revolution in the way we do things, though I remain fundamentally uncomfortable with the fact that all this will happen on a Google server: I can see why that’s necessary for much of the collaborative capability, but its attractiveness will depend on the commercial model, the security, and the balance of client/server elements. The commercial model matters because if it’s used to feed me ads I won’t want to know. The client/server thing matters because it has to be properly functional offline. Of course not everything is going to work offline, but you need to be able to work on your “waves”, filing, deleting and drafting new messages whether or not you’re near an internet connection.
These things matter, and I’m sure too that Microsoft and others are working on similar developments. But whatever emerges as a finished product, Google Wave signals a big shift, and lifts the whole social networking phenomenon above the irritations of Facebook and Twitter.
Email remains by far the most popular communication tool on the net, but email is little more than a glorified post office system, a mechanism for asynchronous communication and data exchange. Wave could be less like a post office, more like an encounter with individuals or groups. If Facebook is a meeting space, it’s like a noisy pub, but Wave-like communication could be more like having lots of private rooms, each set up with the people and the resources most appropriate to that group of people. This is not really re-inventing email. It’s more like glorified instant messenging, but so glorified it’s practically unrecognisable.
It will be interesting to see the impact on Facebook and Twitter, which have become a species of vanity publishing. They depend on an experimental and fairly random notion of a social network, which sits in an uneasy relationship to the contact/address books that most of us use to underpin our email activities. I have “friends” on Facebook who are not in that email (Outlook) address book, and never will be. But it’s the Outlook list that actually matters to me. Outlook itself is moving towards social network integration, with the Xobni add-in offering direct connections to Facebook, Linked-In and the like.
Our address books embrace many different kinds of relationship and network – friends, family, work, services and so on. I think we’re seeing the emergence of the internet as a resource for participating more intelligently in those different networks. Existing social networking sites are too crude, too inflexible, too difficult to control. But what’s interesting about the Wave concept is not so much its different messaging capabilities, as the way it could bring our address books to life, helping us move more easily among our different networks, mixing written and spoken words, voice and video. These are interesting times.