What is Google Wave good for?

What is Google Wave good for?

Summary: I've been puttering around in Google Wave for the best part of a week now, and I understand it, but I have no idea in hell what I'm supposed to be using it for.


ZDNet.com.au news editor
Renai LeMay

(Credit: CBS Interactive)

commentary When Google Wave was first unveiled back in May this year, the hype surrounding the latest offering to emerge from the fevered imaginations of the Sydney-based brothers Rasmussen was unbelievable.

Google Wave, we were told, would burst through all the limitations our creaky global communications platforms have been struggling with for decades.

No more painstakingly attaching documents to emails in Outlook, then making sure that every relevant stakeholder is or isn't included in the recipient list every time someone hits "reply to all".

No more shuffling meeting times to find a sanguine date where those recipients of your latest corporate planning opus can meet online in order to append notes and debate your noteworthy ideas. And certainly no more instant messages containing hyperlinks to that juicy YouTube video of Kanye West ruining Taylor Swift's MTV Awards night that you just have to open in your browser window anyway.

Why, asked Lars Rasmussen, in a seminal post on Google's official blog, should humans in 2009 have to live with divides between different types of communication — "email versus chat, or conversations versus documents?"

"Could a single communications model span all or most of the systems in use on the web today, in one smooth continuum? How simple could we make it?" he asked.

A noble vision indeed.

The press coverage was lavish. "Google Wave drips with ambition. A new communications platform for a new web," wrote TechCrunch's MG Siegler. My colleague Rafe Needleman over at CNET News.com went even further. "It's not just an app, it's an important evolution in the philosophy of written communication," he enthused.

In short, email is pretty good, and Google is going to let everyone use it, but Google Wave has one of the best communications solutions of all time.

Then there's the impeccable developer pedigree behind Google Wave. Lars and Jens Rasmussen are none other than the pair who founded the technology behind Google Maps. They're considered top-level thinkers in the Google ranks, an impressive accomplishment when you consider how many MIT graduates and PhD doctorate holders enjoy the Google largesse.

But, all like all good fairy tales, the great Google Wave hype rollercoaster has to come to an end.

I'm sorry to be a killjoy, but I've been puttering around in Google Wave for the best part of a week now, and I have no idea in hell what I'm supposed to be using it for. I've watched all the videos (yes, even the cool 3.5 per cent one), tried out Google Wave with people in the Australian tech early adopter community both within my company and outside, but got absolutely nowhere with this platform.

The problem, as far as I can see, is that Google Wave doesn't have a single killer application that is going to make people dump their existing communications platforms for it.

Many of the problems that the Rasmussens are trying to solve — content duplication, context-sensitive instant messaging, the integration of documents and communication about those documents — have already been picked off by some far more versatile applications.

Twitter has now become the ubiquitous way to publicly share and flock to snippets of information and communicate about them.

Instant messaging clients that support every protocol known to man, such as Digsby, have long since solved the problem of privately messaging between different domains such as Yahoo and MSN.

Content duplication has been solved inside organisations by Microsoft SharePoint, wiki services, and plain old network drives. In our private lives, we use a hosted service like Google Docs, Flickr or even WordPress to share content, or just email it to each other.

I've seen it in action, and I understand it. What I don't know is what the hell we need it for.

Finally, the global email platform is not as broken as Google perhaps believes it to be. Every single person who has ever used email is familiar with its limitations and strengths. Not everyone likes it. But that doesn't mean it's not going to be the primary way we send each other documents for the next decade.

Technology giants like Microsoft have been trying to improve email for decades, and have continually failed. The reason? It's such a ubiquitous and pervasive standard that it's impossible to force the whole planet to agree on what the next upgrade should be.

I certainly understand the concept that the Rasmussens are trying to realise with Google Wave; let's face it, it's the holy grail of modern communications.

But, the failure of Google Wave is that people don't like big solutions to their problems. They like small ones that have a diamond focus and work perfectly. It's the reason why applications like Xobni, TweetDeck, Firefox, Skype and WordPress have become so powerful and influential. They build on our previous technology in a way that just makes sense, and just works.

All of the Google Wave collaborations I have started over the past week have gradually petered out as people realise they don't quite "get it". They return to their existing tools, which they like, and which work fine.

I'll leave you with some parting comments, again, from TechCrunch's MG Siegler's article back in May.

"So, if you've read this far," he wrote, "you're probably thinking that Wave either sounds great or you're confused as to what it exactly is. It really is one of those products that you have to see in action to understand."

I've seen it in action, and I understand it. What I don't know is what the hell we need it for.

Topics: Collaboration, Google, Social Enterprise

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  • What the hell is it for?

    Collaboration. Pure and simple. Wave can be used to connect all those different services you mention above (wiki, sharepoint, email and so on) into a truly collaborative platform.

    Taking Googles own Wave service as an example, sure, right now it's slow, can be somewhat confusing and is still in the process of being developed (this is an important point). Most of the waves you can see are massive 50+ user waves similar to forums and these don't tend to show off what Wave is really good for.

    Now imagine a Wave with say three participants, you, a sub editor and a journo. With wave you can have the story in your first blip and then go through it making comments on certain parts and making changes. Once you've finished editing, your journo can then take the results and submit them to a robot which places the article into the publication queue.

    That's a very simple example of what wave can be used for.

    Renai I know you have a preview account so I thought you might want to have a look over the following wave:

  • Connection

    hey James,

    as I mentioned, I understand the concept of Wave, and of course it is the holy grail of modern communications.

    What I am arguing is that the execution is lacking so far. I, and a lot of other people, are wondering what all the fuss is about.
  • Great Expectations

    Yeah I can see that. The Preview does have its faults and while it's a restricted system, usage is limited.

    However I think people need to start looking beyond the preview. It was always a demo, proof of concept type setup, an alpha rather than beta, where all the kinks are getting worked out. In the next couple of years you're going to see Google improve their own service (integration with their suite of online tools will add a hell of a lot of functionality) and more importantly you're going to see other people build their own Wave Infra.

    It's this last point which has me deeply interested in Wave. Honestly, if it wasn't for the FedOne Reference implementation and related open protocol specs and so on, Wave would have just been another shiny toy to play with and then move on.
  • I feel the same

    Here I am with my Google Wave invite and log in and cannot make sense of what to do. With whom should I share the 8 invitations for me to use wave. It cannot be used on its own.

    Also the other person should want to use a new solution.

    I am excited I got it but now I have to figure out how to use it
  • wave it away...

    If we do a collective 'wave' it will likely go away for a few more years..... Until the next lot of rubbish comes up, again!
  • Unify the mess, make it simple

    I think Google Wave is the way to simplify and unify a lot of the problems people have with collaborating.
    Nowadays I'm getting into all sorts of collaborations and I notice that a lot of problems with all the online tools that I am used to using.

    When I try to share a document with people, they become confused, because they have to do so many steps before they can actually edit it and send it back to me, that it's almost easier to just go to their place and edit it together.

    But Wave could simplify this enormously, as soon as people are logged in to Wave, you could collaborate immedeatly: once they see you typing, they would easily understand the concept and collaboration would begin.

    Besides that I am also very interested in the Federation model, I would love to see my University set up a Wave server to test, to figure out how we could use this tool in research and education.

    Anyways, Suhit, I don't have an invitation yet, but would love to get one: jelmerderonde [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • Geeks

    This is the problem with geeks designing products and they have absolutely no idea about marketing and usability. Great idea - it'll never work. Don't care how many PHDs these guys have. Some of the least street-wise people in business I have ever met have been supposedly the brightest.
  • As opposed to...

    Marketing designing products and they have no idea about practicality and usability. You need both.
  • Gradual change

    "But, the failure of Google Wave is that people don't like big solutions to their problems."

    That's why I think that Gmail and wave will gradually merge, and users won't notice the big changes. Any other way users probably won't accept this fundamental new way of communication.
  • Its cool only if..

    I see that right now its not open to all. But i bet ..people will love it once it goes open. Yesterday i got a chance to create account ( Google sent me an invitation code :) ) Its awesome....and i agree to the point mentioned by an Google executive that We tend to forget that we are working in a browser.
  • It's for the deckhands

    I've yet to try it - been waiting for some smart collaboration tools. Now it may be a case of waiting for some smart people to start using them.

    Currently I hop madly between all the different apps - searching back to recapture the thread - it's a time waster. Most frustrating all are my clients and colleagues who can't or won't use compatible online comms tools - and then those that do but are still playing kindy games with them.

    I'm guessing this is not a new 'iFurbie' or iRobot' for the kids or an 'iBeaut' or 'iPorche' for the impressive � but an 'iBucket' and 'iMop' for the deckhands. You won't notice them using it - nobody ever does.