My two cents on Google Wave

imagesWe all face the same challenge: too much communication. E-mail overflow, status updates on Facebook, Tweets, blogs, RSS. All scattered around on the internet. We might have embraced these new communication technologies a bit too much. That it what Google might be thinking when they started the development of Wave almost two years ago.

Wave is supposed to solve the ever increasing tsunami of data. Being active in the introduction of an internal social network I whole-hearted agree with these imputations. One of the main topics of discussion there is the fact that people do not want to have more tools to communicate, they want less. So obviously I was eager to find out what Google Wave has to offer. And let’s face it, e-mail is soooo 1995…

First let’s have a look at what Google Wave actually is. I couldn’t find ‘Google Wave in Plain English’, so I’ll give it a try myself (alternatively you can watch the entire keynote -1 hours, 27 minutes, see below- looking at two dreadfully bad presenters in which they explain the entire thing. Recommended for New Media Specialists or if you want to play guru at parties).

In the basis Google Wave is a centralization of all forms of communication. Because of this centralization you can do cool stuff, as we will see later. When compared to ‘traditional’ e-mail (see picture 1) which is basically a copy of the snail mail concept, Google Wave connects everybody on one server (see picture 2).

Picture 1 - The traditional way e-mail works (courtesy of Google)

Picture 1 - The traditional way e-mail works (courtesy of Google)

Picture 2 - The Google Wave way (courtesy of Google)

Picture 2 - The Google Wave way (courtesy of Google)

What is Google Wave?

The information Google is providing is not too much, mainly because Google Wave is still in development. The keynote presentation (yes, I did watch it) reveals the following features:

A Wave can be compared to a sort of e-mail message on steroids. Looking at the interfce of Wave, you see a navigation on the upper left side (with inbox, archive, etc), Contact list on the lower left side, A pane in the middle with your ‘Waves’ and on the right side the selected Wave.


Plain vanilla e-mail is done by creating a new Wave, dragging your contact in the wave and start typing. When the recipient receives the Wave it can reply. Nothing new here. But the cool thing is that one can reply on paragraphs within the mail and start a conversation based on this specific paragraph. So you get a conversation within a conversation. All visually stunning and easy to see. But now the cool part comes: whenever the sender is typing her message, the recipient, if online and looking at the same Wave, can actually see the sender typing. Sort if instant messaging, but without the message ‘xxx is typing….‘. Of course, if you want to give your love message a bit more thought you can switch this off and use the traditional ‘send’ button.

Dragging pics into your Wave is as easy as drag and drop. Also here the recipient sees the pictures arriving the moment the sender drags them into the Wave. Impressive stuff, also if you realize that all is done within the browser. No additional software is required.

If you want to name the pictures, you can of course do so. And again, whenever you add text to a picture, the other person can watch it ‘live’. But Google has built in an even neater trick. The recipient can start adding text too, and then the sender sees it automatically. In this way you can really work collaboratively on a document (as opposed to the dreadful way Microsoft has implemented this in Word).

Sometimes e-mail threads can become pretty long. Ever received an e-mail of twenty pages, where you have to scroll all the way down to start reading? With Wave, where people can start a conversation within a Wave, things don’t get any clearer. Fortunately Google has thought of that too. There’s a playback button on each Wave, and a timeline. Just press the ‘Play’ button or drag the timeline and see the Wave being build up from scratch. See who replied on who, and when. Handy stuff.

A Wave can be embedded in a blog, wiki or any other website. So when you embed your Wave, it’s there to see for the world. Basically you can take your conversation public, viral. Whenever people react to your Wave on the embedded website it is shown on the website itself, but also in your original Wave. Same goes for Twitter. A nice integration with our all time favorite microblogging platform makes it convenient to have your tweets together with your e-mails…eeehh… Waves. Just imagine what this could do for enterprises, building up a massive knowledge database automatically.

Another nifty feature is autocorrection based on Google’s language database (should be pretty big by now) and, guaranteed WOW effect, autotranslation. Somebody is typing in French and it is automatically –on the fly– translated in English. Google Wave, where were you when I was on High School? Using these features involves including a ‘Robot’ in your Wave. Just like including people in your Wave you can add these Robots (little pieces of software) which enhances your Wave. A bit scary may be for novel users but -depending of the Robot’s feautures- proving very helpful eventually.

Wave is open source, so all can start making applications. Next to that companies can install Wave software independently from Google so that communication never has to go through Google servers and stays within the group you decide to share. Clever, Google, clever.

There is much, much more to tell about Wave, but I suggest you grab some popcorn and a bottle of beer and start watching the presentation:

So, will Google Wave have a future?

From a collaboration point of view I certainly saw some very nice features. Collaboration within a Wave, dragging just another person to the Wave if you want to get involvement, conversations within a Wave, adding features with Robots, taking the conversation outside the Wave. All features which will bring a rich user experience and endless possibilities. But the main challenge will -in my opinion- be twofold:

1. User adoption
2. Lock-in by Google

1. User adoption
Google Wave has a strong competitor. A competitor which is so adopted within society, from a cultural as well as a technological point of view: e-mail. And why is e-mail so strong? Simply because we all have it, we all know how to use it (which is obvious when I look at the number of e-mails in my inbox) and because the technology is not owned by anybody. So the success of Wave -any new technology for that matter- depends on the adoption and thus on the number of people using it. If nobody has Wave, with whom will I dance the Wave? Google of course realizes this, hence the decision to make it open source. They want as many people as possible to try, build and embrace it. Hoping for a tipping point.

But will my mother use it? Will she see the benefits of online collaboration? Will she take effort to go through the rather steep learning curve? I just don’t know. For the average Digital Native this won’t be any issue. But mind you, there are still a lot of Digital Immigrants out there, and they feel perfectly okay using e-mail. Even so, it is not too long ago that they mastered e-mail and I’m not sure whether they want to go through that again.

And what about corporations? More efficient communication, building up knowledge collectively, online collaboration. Which CEO doesn’t want that? But what a minute… this is technology from Google, isn’t it?

2. Lock-in by Google
In a recent Wired article (August 2009) it is explained why Google is set on a collision course with the US antitrust division. Being seen as the ‘new Microsoft’, the recently appointed head of Justice Department’s antitrust division Christine Varney is sure to investigate the accusations Google has received from various parties. According to Varney “[Microsoft] is not the problem. I think we are going to continually see a problem, potentially with Google”.

Whether these accusations are all true or not, nobody can deny that Google has gotten some power over the years. And in general society doesn’t like such powerhouses. I can imagine that also companies are reluctant to use technology which on paper might be open source, but you just never know.

In conclusion I think Google Wave could potentially be very big. It certainly has all the ingredients to become the next iteration of online conversations. I’m not so sure about adoption, which is the main critical success factor. I will certainly give it a try when it becomes available later this year, and I advise you do the same. If it was only for playing the early-adopter guru amongst your friends.

Additional reading:

First Impressions of Google Wavers, by Dion Hinchcliffe

What works: The Wave Way vs. the Web Way by Anil Dash

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