By now, you've probably heard mutterings about a new Google innovation known as Wave. Not content with cleaning up in the search engine arena, becoming the first name in digital maps and making its Gmail client synonymous with webmail, Google wants you to organise and share your social and business events and conflabs using its tools too.

Google Wave offers a simple, single interface for storing events, meetings, ideas and conversations. Once you've secured an invite, the idea is you share not just blogs, tweets and funny YouTube clips but more business-focused output too. You can use it to brainstorm ideas, to draw up drafts and to do so across as large a group of contributors as your Google Wave ecosystem stretches to.

The ‘wave' is a one-size-fits-all term for conversations, documents and events. In common with a wiki, anyone can edit a wave. But what's most innovative about Google's approach is that any changes will be visible to all users in real time.

Google also promises simplified filesharing, with subscribers able to drag-and-drop items such as photos into a wave. The entire wave can then be shared via external websites.

Although Google Wave was offered only as a limited release to public beta testers at the end of September, it promises to greatly simplify the way we communicate online.

The basics

Google Wave - and its associated jargon and lingo - might seem confusing to the outsider. But its essence is simple: it allows you to store and share files and conversations in an easy-to-use interface.

Wave allows multiple users to share and collaborate on documents, using a rich media editor that can display images and videos as well as a range of gadgets and interactive applets. Any communication or ‘wave' can be part conversation and part document, with Google providing live transmission of any edits.

Note that Wave is still in beta, and only invitees are able to participate in its testing programme. Visiting and requesting an invite won't guarantee that you'll be able to access the features mentioned here.

Step 1: One reason behind Google Wave's restricted access is that it isn't fully compatible with Internet Explorer. Rather, Google designed Wave with Safari, Firefox and, unsurprisingly, Google Chrome in mind. If you're nevertheless determined to use Wave with Internet Explorer, you'll need to install the Google Chrome Frame plug-in. This replaces Internet Explorer's rendering engine with that of Google Chrome. Ignore this advice and Google Wave won't appear correctly in your browser.

Google Wave workshop 1.1

Step 2: When you first open up Wave, the interface is fairly sparse as there are no waves or contacts other than the person who invited you. A list of waves that have been created and sent to others by you will be listed in the central pane; clicking an individual wave brings up a preview in the right pane. A menu in the left pane, meanwhile, displays a Navigation bar. This can be used to help you locate and control all the waves in which you are a participant, as well as a contacts panel.

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Step 3: As the number of users able to connect to Wave is restricted during the beta-testing stage, our ability to demonstrate collaboration with others is limited. If any of your contacts have a Wave account, however, this will be displayed in your contacts list.

To add contacts, click the plus button at the bottom of the screen and start typing in a name or email address - if your contact has a Wave account it will be displayed here. Alternatively, click Manage Contacts and add people to your My Contacts list; they will see you as Wave invites go out to them.

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Step 4: To begin creating a wave, click the New Wave button in the central Inbox. This brings up the rich media editor where you can type your messages and add videos, images and various gadgets. Fairly simple formatting is available using the various icons in the Actions bar above the editor.

To insert an image, video or audio file, click the attachments icon (indicated by a paper clip) and browse to the file in question. Alternatively, you can simply drag-and-drop a file into your wave. Once your wave is ready to share, click Done.

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Step 5: A wave is designed to be shared, so the next step is to add a participant who will be able to follow its development. Click the plus button located just above the Add participants link, then select users or groups with whom you wish to share your message. As you type your message, it will show up in their inbox and they will be able to comment on it as they see fit.

Waves can be divided into wavelets or smaller elements known as blips (see the next page for more detail on these).

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Step 6: You can navigate the waves you create by clicking All in the lefthand menu, selecting By Me for your personal waves or using the search function at the bottom of the Navigation menu. A Playback button at the top of each wave automatically plays each blip within a wave.

Some of the customisation features are yet to be developed, but it's already possible to enable or disable various extensions that plug into your waves.

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Using wavelets, blips and gadgets

So far, we've looked at the basics for creating and sharing waves. However, Google also offers some elements that are worth investigating in more detail.

As we noted earlier, a wave is part document, part communication, and can be edited at any point by any user and updated in real time. The simplicity of this wiki-like approach to documents promises to be one of Wave's most radical applications.

When a threaded conversation builds up either within or outside a wave, this is referred to as a wavelet and works in a fashion similar to an instant messaging conversation. Single messages are referred to as blips. These in turn can have further blips attached to them and can function rather like Twitter tweets.

Waves, wavelets and blips can all have various documents and files attached to them, allowing other wavelets and blips to cascade out and draw in other users. Any wave and its associated blips and wavelets can then be embedded and uploaded to a website.

There will be plenty of opportunities for users to enhance Google Wave's capabilities with Extensions. These consist of gadgets or robots that can pull information from external sources such as Twitter.

Indeed, the ability to easily add various gadgets to a wave, such as one for Google Maps, promises to be a real boon. In this beta stage, this gadget is one of the best tools that you can use for exploring how Wave will work in future when sharing media-rich documents.

Step 1: The Google Maps icon is located on the action toolbar above the editor. Also here are a selection of other Google gadget icons, the ability to add a yes/no button to documents, and even the URL for other widgets you want to include in your wave.

Not all the gadgets have yet been implemented, but as Wave develops you should be able to add the various services that have become commonplace in Chrome and the Google toolbar for other browsers, such as translation and spellchecking tools.

Google Wave workshop 2.1

Step 2: Once you've clicked on the map icon, a default map will be loaded into your wave. To change its location, type a place name or postcode into the search box at the bottom left of the gadget. Selecting ‘Create copy on map' places a marker on your map, while the ‘Get directions' button shows you how to get to that spot. Even if you aren't familiar with Google Maps, you'll quickly be able to find your way around a map gadget inserted into a wave.

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Step 3: By using the line and poly tools next to the search box, you can begin to chart routes and locations on your map with various way points that contain information about those locations. When you wish to share this information with your contacts, click the plus button at the top of the screen to add a user or group to the wave.

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Step 4: The Google Maps gadget has all the features of the main site. You can zoom in or out of the map and view satellite or terrain data; select your view using the icons at the top left of the map. Likewise, locations added by other users to Google Maps will also be visible to you and other wave participants. It's an extremely useful way of keeping tabs on helpful or important geographical information.

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Step 5: If you can't see any extensions, you may need to activate some. Go to the ‘Welcome to Google Wave' email you received when you set up the account and you'll see a list of extensions and options. To add more extensions, click the plus button next to Searches in the Navigation panel. Web-conferencing, video-chat and travel apps are offered. Click an extension's Install button to add it. Its icon will now appear in your toolbar, letting you add it to future waves.

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Step 6: You can also embed a wave into an external website; it's more complex than embedding a YouTube video, but the principle is the same. The embedded wave retains many of its functions, such as the ability to drag-and-drop files.

Although embedding is still at an early stage of development, Google is already enabling the embed process to work with YouTube and other services.