What is Google Wave good for?

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.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor

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.

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