Exclusive: Video Interview With The Google Wave Founders

Everyone’s still digesting the Google Wave news from this morning. The demo video that we’re seeing at Google IO isn’t yet up, so for now you’ll have to digest the our overview and screen shots.

But the product is important – not only does it do fantastic new things in a browser care of HTML 5, but it also proposes a new communication paradigm. The founding team behind wave like to say that this is what email would be if it were invented today.

Yesterday we had a chance to sit down with that founding team – brothers Lars Rasmussen and Jens Rasmussen and Stephanie Hannon – to talk about the initial idea behind Wave, and Google’s philosophy in rolling it out. VP Engineering Vic Gundotra also makes a cameo appearance at the end.

Yens and Lars are brothers, originally from Denmark, who founded mapping startup Where2 in 2003. The company was acquired by Google in 2004 and is now Google Maps. Stephanie is a Google Product Manager who was previously on the Google Maps team.

The core idea for Wave, says Lars, was first thought of by Jens as a way to fix email (yes yes yes). Email is asynchronous conversation. Instant messaging, by contrast, is synchronous. Wave is both.

Yahoo has tried to tackle this problem by bringing instant messaging directly into the web mail interface. Google also integrates Google Chat directly into Gmail. But in both cases the products are simply bolted together. Google Wave is something new.

The team also talks about making both the underlying protocols as well as the source code for the application open source. They seem to define success as the point when lots of third parties are building their own Wave systems, fully interoperable with Google Wave. Unlike Twitter, Google Wave is an open system right from the start. If it’s successful there is no need to host data on Google servers. And third parties are free to fork the direction of Wave for their own use.

This is very, very innovative stuff. We’ll be hearing a lot more about this over time. The full transcript of the interview is below.


Michael Arrington (TechCrunch): This is Mike Arrington. I’m here with the Google Wave founding team. We’ve got Lars Rasmussen, Stephanie Hannon, and Jens Rasmussen. You guys are brothers?

Lars: Yes.

MA: At this point now, everyone has seen the Google Wave demo. Developers here at the Google I/O conference now have access to it, so they can start playing with it. What I want to do here in this video, is talk to you guys about the core vision, when you first came up with the idea, why, what you wanted to build, and do you think you’ve done that, where do you see it going?

SH: We just wanted to say we hope everyone liked the demo.

MA: I think it’s safe to say that people were pretty stunned by the demo, in a good way.

LR: I get to answer the question because it was his (points to Jens) idea. I don’t have to be as modest as he would have to be.

JR: It works better that way.

LR: So actually it’s been a while since we (by we I mean Jens) had the idea. It was back in 2004, and we were just about to join Google. That had bought a little startup that we had. We had a mapping prototype that turned into Google Maps. And Jens and I started discussing what we might do after Maps. And Jens had the idea that we should work on this thing that became Google Wave.

He argued that email, even though it is the most popular way to communicate still, was invented quite a while ago, in fact before the Internet (if we look it up on Wikipedia). And he argued that was designed essentially to mimic snail mail, and what we should do instead is look at how computers work today and networks work today, and they have obviously improved dramatically in four decades, and see what the best way to communicate would be.

He proposed this thing called “hosted conversations” (this is what we call waves now). He listed them in a big series of benefits over existing systems. The thing that caught me was with these hosted conversations, you could do both email type conversations and instant messaging type conversations, in the same tool. You can see this in the very early parts of the demo.

MA: Synchronous and asynchronous communication in one stream.

LR: Exactly. Synchronous and asynchronous in the same conversation. And you can switch back and forth, depending who is online at any one time. That’s what sold me. We didn’t talk about the project for another couple years. We had a great time building Google Maps with some of the best engineers in the world. And then in the beginning of 2007, we picked it back up. We started prototyping with the a team of four or five engineers in Sydney, Australia. And little by little, we came up with what became Google Wave. [Points to Jens] All based on his original ideas.

MA: [to Jens] Do you agree?

JR: Yes. [laughter]

MA: So you really started coding hard in 2007 with four or five people. How big is the team now?

LR: It’s about 50 now.

MA: 50 engineers?

LR: 50 engineers. Pretty much all of them are in Sydney.

SH: We are in Sydney too. Everyone can come visit.

MA: One of the cool things about this is you aren’t just launching a new web service — obviously the service itself is pretty impressive based on the demo (can’t wait to try it out myself) — but you are also open-sourcing this. Parts of it. In particular, right from the beginning, the protocols. And so, if you were inventing a new way of communicating here, and if you were inventing email for the first time and you kept it proprietary, it would obviously limit the usefulness of it. Can you talk a little bit about your goals with publishing the protocols and not trying to keep intellectual property rights attached to those?

LR: I’ll give it a shot. This has been our thinking from the beginning. We want to build, like you said, a new way of communicating. But we want to make sure it’s open, just like email. We want to make sure that you can choose your own Wave provider and no matter which provider you get your account from, you can talk to anyone else that has a Wave account. And were publishing the protocol, or rather a draft of the protocol (I should say that this is very much a work in progress), and we intend later to open source the lion share of our code.

The primary reason we want to open source our code is actually adoption of the protocol. It’s not a simple thing to build a Wave system — we’ve spent two and a half years on the first one — and so we think adoption will go a lot faster if you can grab our code, look at it, and start out with that. And so we’re envisioning this bright future of Wave, where it’s a new accepted way we all communicate. There are lots of different Wave providers. Some of them will be cloud-based like ours, where you go and get an account from a Google or a competing company. But also, we envision that enterprises or techies will run their own Wave servers, in their own server closets.

MA: So within the enterprise, behind the walls, for those reasons.

LR: Exactly. It’s a very important feature of the protocol that if a set of colleagues within an enterprise runs a Wave server, that will stay just between them — that data will never leave their network. And in fact, if remember in the demo, we have this feature called the private reply, where within a larger Wave with a large number of people, you can do a sub-thread with a sub-set of the people in that Wave. If you guys are colleagues in an enterprise running your own Wave server, you start a private reply within a larger Wave, that private reply will never leave your corporate network.

SH: So we think exciting things will happen, the more people that have Wave. And we think more people will have Wave, if they have choice in providers and choice in where there servers sit.

MA: Jens you guys have talked about how you guys have been using this internally for a couple months now, and you have a couple thousand Googlers using it. How sticky is it? How many people sticking with it after they try it out? You guys must be looking at those numbers.

JR: They are very good.

MA: Very, very good?

SH: Yes, very good.

JR: You can quote me on that.

LR: I would moderate given how early days it is, it’s quite good. And we have just started. We actually asked them, when we offered our colleagues accounts to help us test it, how pain tolerant they were — whether they were the types that swim with sharks and walk on fire, or people that like less adventurous things. I think about the 3000 or so users we have now are the people that offered to walk on fire.

MA: Willing to try anything?

LR: Exactly.

MA: But may not be willing to make a commitment to anything?

LR: Well, what we are looking for now is for people to test it, try it out. We want to measure how well it scales. We want to figure out what happens when lots of people use it. In the first several months, there were about 50 Wave users, and everything was all very controlled, calm, and quiet and all the Waves were super important to us. All of sudden there were 2000 users, all of them colleagues, all of them wanting to talk to us. And we learned — in a very exciting way — what it means to get lots of waves all of a sudden. And so we are learning lots from it.

SH: A core part of the product is the “liveness.” And you can see what people are doing all the time. Waves become active and unread and pop-up in your search panel all the time, and you need to learn when that’s useful for people and when it’s not, and how to present information to them in a way that’s useful and so they know what’s important and what to deal with. Googlers are amazingly vocal, and we have learned so much in the last few months about how people are using it. It has helped change our feature set, improve our usability, and just decide what to do with our engineering resources.

LR: Amazingly vocal, that’s true.

SH: Crazy vocal.

MA: And you were saying earlier that you definitely think this is a Twitter-killer? [laughter]

LR: I don’t remember saying…

MA: Oh, was that off record?

SH: I don’t think that was ever said…

MA: Oh maybe that wasn’t you guys, that might have been someone else.

LR: I remember saying quite the opposite. So you saw the video that we did two months ago? One of the things that’s missing is actually integration between Twitter and Wave. Another of the sample applications that we are trying to sell developers on building for real — where you can install as an extension into your Wave client that let’s you get all of your tweets from all of your followers into a Wave, and if you reply to one of the tweets inside a Wave, the extension will tweet back into the Twittersphere. And we would estimate that would actually improve adoption of Twitter.

SH: We like to compliment Twitter for being open and having APIs from the beginning.

MA: You want to compliment them before you kill them. [laughter] Uh oh, the press people are not happy.

Vic Gundotra: Michael, Michael, Michael…

MA: Can we talk about Chrome?

VG: We can talk about anything you like.

MA: I think we are done. I really appreciate your time. Congratulations guys and thank you very much.

The demo at Google I/O has just ended to huge standing ovation. If today is any indication, this is going to be big.