The new communication Wave isn't what you think it is

google_wave_logo.pngI haven’t seen this much hype about a Google product since Gmail launched a few years ago. Invitations to use Google Wave have been trickling out to eager users for a couple weeks now and I managed to secure one thanks to Gavin Magid who sent me one of his invites. Like many of you, I watched the demonstration video a while ago and I have been pretty excited about Wave since then although probably not for the same reasons you may have been excited about it.

Wave was touted as a replacement for email and a cure for world hunger almost from the beginning. This has created some really unrealistic expectations, more in the minds of email addicts than people fighting world hunger (unlike the email addicts, they knew immediately Wave wasn’t going to fix world hunger). I know some people have said that the Rasmussens said that Wave would replace email but I don’t remember that (Lars Rasmussen did tell the Wall Street Journal that Wave is a modern version of email though). What I do remember is how they demonstrated that Wave could revolutionise how we collaborate. Unfortunately there is so much hype about this “email replacement” that there has been a fair amount of negativity about the actual product now that more and more people have had a chance to work with it. Scoble initially took a pretty dim view of Wave (also be sure to read his follow up post about how the email metaphor is unhelpful) although I think he pretty much summed up Wave’s value (in my opinion, at least) when he said the following:

See, the first thing you notice is that you can see people chatting live in Google Wave.

That’s really cool if you are working on something together, like a spreadsheet or a Word document.

But it’s a productivity sink if you are trying to just communicate with other people.

It also ignores the productivity gains that we’ve gotten from RSS feeds, Twitter, and FriendFeed.

His focus on Wave as a social networking tool is representative of a number of perspectives I have come across already. A couple people I have been testing Wave with have commented on Wave’s value as a Twitter replacement (Really? Is Twitter really something every vaguely similar tool has to replicate?). I think those people are missing the point, just like their email focussed colleagues.

That being said, Wave can replace email for our collaboration oriented tasks. I see Wave as a potential Google Docs+ service. While it lacks decent text formatting tools at the moment (ok, remember Google Wave is still very much a preview version at the moment and is actively being developed and improved) I see this as being a terrific way to collaborate in a team on a document or project. Like Louis Gray, I don’t see Wave being suitable for mass communication, it just gets way too crazy and will only take more time just trying to track multiple branches of conversation threads. Here is a quick demo I made which will give you an idea how chaotic a wave can become:

I’m still messing around with Wave and the product is clearly still in early days but I can see this becoming a tremendously helpful collaboration tool in my business. I work with people in different cities and countries and having Wave available through Google Apps would enable us to collaborate both realtime and asynchronously pretty effectively. Bear in mind that Google Docs already has collaboration functionality built into it (heck, Google Docs is designed around collaboration) but Wave just does it so much better based on what I’ve seen.

I mentioned the debate about Wave as an email replacement earlier in this post. I don’t agree with that characterization when it comes to run of the mill email. Email is built on well established standards and is pervasive. Wave is built on a mix of open protocols and what seems to be a new set of protocols (I could be wrong here) and while Wave is meant to be federated, you’re basically asking people to roll out support for a new infrastructure to replace email where the benefits for certain types of email are not clear.

On the other hand I do see Wave as replacing email for some forms of collaboration. Just like wikis had the potential to change email behaviour by presenting opportunities to collaborate on documents and projects on the wiki rather than using loads of emails, Wave has a similar promise. In fact it is probably more useful to think of Wave as being more like a combination of a wiki and a document service than email per se. Email is really a means to communicate ideas, changes to documents and so on. Wave is where you can actually do all that work without using email as an intermediary.

Now what Wave may have been intended for and what people actually use it for are two very different things. Twitter wasn’t meant to be a chat service and yet that is exactly what we have been using it for (well, in addition to the other stuff). If you are planning to use Wave to replace Twitter or have rampant email conversations with loads of people you are going to become pretty frustrated pretty quickly. If you are planning to use Wave for focussed collaboration then you are on to something.

Ultimately we are going to have to wait a little longer to see how Wave impacts on our activities online. The “new, shiny” quality will fade soon enough and if it doesn’t help us become more productive it will quickly fall by the wayside. I don’t think it will but I do think that, despite all the hype, Wave will probably become a little like Gmail and Google Docs and part of our workflow wallpaper. Its probably better that way too. I don’t want to focus too much on the tool but rather on the work it helps me get done that much better.

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