13 January 2010

Google Wave: a communication tool to rule them all?

Google Wave logoMore than three months have passed since Google Wave was released to a wider audience. Even though the initial buzz around the launch and the frantic search for invites has now largely cooled off, there is still room for talks and opinions around it, as more and more people discover how to use it. Here are my thoughts on how Google Wave compares to the more traditional forms of communication:

As a decade-old technology, e-mail would need the most improvements and Google Wave brings a whole new vision. I remember a presentation video for Google Docs that talked about eliminating the need to send attachments back-and-forth and instead having a single version on the web. The way I see it, Wave works exactly like that, only for e-mail.

Another way you could describe Google Wave is a whiteboard, where everyone in the room can write their opinions, erase/edit what others wrote and also follow the text evolving in real-time. In this comparison, e-mail would be everyone in the room writing things down on pieces of paper and circulating them for feedback, without talking to each-other in the process. Now ask yourself, which of those scenarios is more efficient?

This is not the first time Google innovates in the e-mail department: it started with Gmail and threaded conversations, a concept that breaks away from the traditional chronologically sort order and brings related messages together. There were a lot of people who couldn't get used to it, a lot of voices calling for Gmail to step back and show individual e-mails. I guess this is Google's answer to this request: it shows they aren't going back on that decision, instead are moving forward even bolder, with Wave. Wave also brings the e-mail and chat integration pioneered by Gmail to a new level, where they are practically indistinguishable.

There are many advantages to Google Wave and I think this article sums them up very well.

A lot of features are still missing from Wave when compared to corporate email, like prioritizing messages with high importance or flags, return receipts, adding signatures, but these could all be implemented in the future, either by Google or other developers. For notifications, there are already some solutions available, like a desktop notifier or the Firefox and Chrome extensions.

But the biggest problem Wave faces in the competition with traditional email is the incompatibility between them: a Wave user cannot communicate with someone outside it that uses a regular e-mail account. Waves don't "degrade" into individual messages, partly because waves are dynamic and can be edited, whereas email is static. I have seen some extensions for Wave to connect it to e-mail accounts, but I'm not convinced they would be effective in bridging the gap between these technologies.

Contact management is a very basic area right now in Google Wave. You only get a list of people you can wave with, with the online contacts on top. There's no way to create groups of contacts or categorise them. You can't even select multiple contacts to add them to a wave, you must do it one by one. This was one major complaint of the Gmail users ever since it launched and was only recently addressed. There is a link on the bottom to "Manage contacts", which leads to Google Contacts.

Google Wave is pretty weak in time management as well, mainly because it lacks an integrated calendar. Without it you cannot schedule events, set up reminders and to-dos or show up as 'busy' to others. You can use the "Yes/No/Maybe"-gadget to gather meeting confirmations, but it's hard to have a meeting when you don't know the time. Adding some time-management features would also enable Wave to build complex workflows, e.g. for purchasing.

I think Wave needs a Calendar gadget, similar to the Maps gadget, where participants can edit the events together in real time to find the best schedule or add other guests. Most of the technology should already be available in Google Calendar, especially with the new event scheduler. Another component of meetings, especially in large companies, are the rooms, which must be reserved in advance. Here it would be a nice idea to create bots for them that can be added to a meeting-wave and reply with predetermined-texts to inform if the room is free or busy.

Google Wave has some interesting advantages over traditional instant messaging. For example sometimes the discussion goes out of sync, with me writing one idea and the other replying to an older subject, loosing sight of your new idea altogether. Instead, in Wave it's much easier to come back and comment on the same ideas, without loosing some topics.

The file- and photo-sharing features are also much better integrated and you can also preview videos inline. It's dead simple to add new participants to the chat and these see the whole discussion instantly, no need to copy-paste the history for each new-comer.

Some may find the real-time typing inhibiting, but I really enjoy it. For now, the "Draft" button is deactivated, but with it checked you could get a very IM-like experience: the message appears when you decide to send it, not in real-time.

Some time ago Google Wave also added an indicator for the online status, a small green bubble next to the avatar of the contacts. Of course, right now you can't set your status anywhere, nor can you set yourself as busy or invisible, but bear in mind it took years for Google Talk to implement an 'invisible' mode.

On the minus side Wave lacks a light-weight client for cases where you just want to exchange a few words and don't want to load the whole browser and app. And the problem of interoperability with other systems is also present, as is for e-mail. Given that the XMPP-protocol is built in, this could probably be solved quite easily and let @googlewave.com accounts chat with other Jabber-based networks.

For document collaboration, Wave has range of formatting options comparable to Google Docs, so it could be used for lightweight document editing. The "playback" feature is also much richer than the revision history from Google Docs and should make an interesting candidate for technologies that could be adapted into existing applications. But a major draw-back is you can't revert to a previous version of the document, nor can you export the finished draft to a local file. Also, spreadsheet and presentation editing is completely missing now, so you have to rely on an external editor. Here Google Wave won't be replacing the more established cloud or desktop alternatives very soon.

Although not designed to do that, Wave could offer a workable alternative to existing social networks. After all, it lets you chat, share links, photos and videos (with a nice slide-show too!) and doesn't have the length restrictions imposed by other sites. Your waves are private by default, and you also get to choose which contacts view and can reply to them, although considering the previous point about contact management that would get annoying very quickly.

But one thing Wave does much better than any existing social networking site is the communication model. On Twitter, you can basically have only one-to-one communication: add more than a couple of people and you don't have any room to write anymore! It's very hard for someone asking a question to centralize the answers and for the audience to know what are the opinions of the others. The majority of sites (Facebook, FriendFeed, even blog comments or forums) only allow for a linear communication: you can post replies chronologically, one after the other. In most cases you can't edit your own comments and it's hard (or at least inelegant) to specify to which other previous comment you replied.

With Wave, communication is much more natural and easier to follow: you can reply to or correct other people, it is more clear and transparent to the participants who answered whom, and the participants are free to explore other topics, to elaborate them in sub-waves. I saw a great deal of debate last year about the presidential elections in Romania on Facebook and it would have benefited from the freedom Google Wave allows.

Despite it's advantages, Google Wave must overcome some serious drawbacks if it plans to take over the online world. The first thing that comes to mind is the lack of backward compatibility with established communication tools, like e-mail and chat. Without it, Wave will never convince the conservative corporations to give it a real chance (if you need an example, just look how slow companies are moving away from Internet Explorer!). The high memory usage will also slow the adoption of Google Wave in the mobile market, where computing resources are scarce. Given that smartphones and netbooks are growing fast, Wave should have a light-weight mobile version to stay competitive. But let's not forget we're not using a finished product here (Google loves it's "beta" label!); Wave is technically only a preview, not even beta-quality yet!

In the short-term, some of the new developments included in Wave will probably be adapted to other apps, like the cool playback for document revisions. The context-sensitive spell-checker, or spelly, could make a great addition to any mail client and document editor, especially when it will be able to recognize other languages besides English. Maybe even the interface will be used in other apps, like this article suggests.

In the medium-term, I think Google could help the adoption of Wave by adding it to the Google Apps suite. This way companies can test it in a more controlled environment and compare it to other apps or internal tools, and maybe even create their own custom bots.

So, what should be the conclusion of this exceedingly long article? Forget about the opinions of others and try out Google Wave for yourselves! Discover your own ways to use this incredibly flexible and complex tool to improve and simplify communication! Plain-and-simple: be bold!

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