The general agreement is that mail is broken. We all use it but kind of hate it too. Well, it seems that Google came up with a very good alternative (ambitious, and technically impressive): Google Wave.
A long video of Wave’s capabilities here.
It’s very long at 1:20hrs, but worth it. It’s peppered with random bouts of applause, something I’ve never seen in a scientific/technical presentation before. About minute 1:04, Lars Rasmussen presents real-time translation and he gets about a minute of standing ovation.
Why is this important for academics? Looks like sending a word document back and forth with version numbers in the file name is no fun. And setting a VCS with a bunch of .tex files plus figures is not much better (mainly because doing diffs on LaTeX files is pretty horrible). One could always convince a collaborator to use Google Docs, but then you have no way to use a proper reference manager, figures are a mess, etc. In short, scientific paper collaboration is not really pleasant right now.
In fact, it might be more appealing than desktop equivalents (say MS word) to write papers with collaborators, and better than a long thread of mails to simply organize a dinner out. So I won’t be surprised if many people jump on this as soon as it’s out. Wave is solving so many problems so well that it’ll be a rotund success. Here’s the interface:
The basically new thing is that you can see your collaborator typing away in real time, maybe in different parts of your manuscript. Although similar things have been around for a while (see for example etherpad), the way Wave integrates with other google offerings such as chat/email –may well be enough to gain adoption.
Wave supports images, and more editing features in general than etherpad.
One thing we get for free is version control: you can even move a slider to see how changes happened in your document. It’s pretty spectacular.
While Wave won’t be out for a while, there are developer accounts where one can sign up and get a preview.
Surprising: It’s open source, both client and server (!). I have no idea how they plan to disentangle the server side from the rest of Google’s infrastructure… Unless they ask you to reproduce all of part of it on your server – which is unlikely- I’m not sure how you could get this thing running.