Lots of talk about Google Wave last week, but after reading five articles that all described it in a similar fashion, I still didn't quite get what all the fuss was about. Finally, at the behest of one of my online friends I looked at the first 40 minutes of the 1 hour and 20 minute presentation from last week's Google I/O conference, and I finally had an inkling of the potential.
I still didn't quite share the enthusiasm at first glance of Tim O'Reilly or Mashable's Ben Parr, both of whom saw the whole presentation, and believe that this could be game changing software. Although I certainly can see its potential, I can also see some potential problems that I think we should discuss before pronouncing this a crowning achievement.
What It Is In a Nut Shell
What this software does is provide a unified communication interface, and believe me, I'm not dismissing that lightly. Think of it at its most basic level as a way to view IM and email in a unified interface in real time, right down to seeing individual keystrokes as you type if you wish. What's more, you can also share and collaborate from the same interface, so think of having Google Docs built in to the same interface, with real-time collaboration and editing capabilities including the ability to add items like photos and even enabling your colleague to fix your typos for you.
Waves are not confined to the Wave interface, however. You can programmatically link a wave to web site or blog, so that you embed the Wave directly into an entirely different venue much like Google Maps (which is no coincidence, since this is the same team that brought you Google Maps).
This ability to communicate, collaborate and share across different venues from a single tool is what makes it so powerful. So you could have a live conversation in your blog's comment section by embedding Wave functionality into your blog. The conversation appears in your blog and in your Wave interface, so you can access it from both places, or you never have to open Wave to see it. The software is not confined to its container.
What I'm Worried About
For all the potential I see here, and there is a tremendous amount, there are a number of issues I could see:
* What happens when you have conversation with more than say five people.
Conversations are known as Waves, but the demo included just three people. What happens when you are on team with 15 or 20 people or on a mailing list with 200 people? Won't it get crowded and out of control fairly quickly? Won't the interface itself overwhelm those of us who have trouble processing too much information in a single view. It will surely please some people, but I can see it getting overcrowded and noisy in a hurry. It will definitely need well designed filtering controls to avoid this problem.
* Key Stroke by Key Stroke View Could Be Annoying
The programmers maintained that the stroke by stroke view keeps the conversation alive, rather than waiting for the next sentence or two to appear. I can see how that could be useful, but I could also see it getting annoying, especially when multiple people were typing at the same time. What's more, very often I formulate a thought in IM , then change my mind and reword it or dismiss my thought altogether. If the person saw my thought process as it happens, I've lost that ability to check myself. Yes you can shut it off, but the very people who should probably won't.
* Editing Ability Could Get Out of Control
Everyone can edit everyone's messages to give you a live document kind of functionality, but it's not just a document interface, it's an email/IM interface, so it allows the person to edit anything and everything. Yes, there is an audit trail, and the author is informed of changes, but if you come into a conversation in the middle, you won't see the change history (as you can in a Wiki) unless you "play back" the entire conversation. Of course, most of us aren't going to do that, so the truth will be whatever we see in front of us and that could be a big problem.
* Too Complicated for the Masses
After watching the presentation, I wondered about the complexity of the interface and the number of adjustments you could make, and if this could have an impact on mass adoption (say on the scale of Gmail). Twitter is about as simple as you can get, 140 character limit and click Send and some people still have trouble understanding the nuances. Wave is a magnitude more complex and I wonder if this will hold back adoption beyond the technical elite.
These may not prove to be insurmountable obstacles, but as Seth Godin pointed out this week, the trouble with Microsoft's Bing ad campaign is that it suggests people are looking for a reason to move from Google Search when they're not. Neither do I think are they looking for an alternative to email and instant messaging. It works just fine for most people now. If people were to move to a new email/IM interface, it would have to be so compelling that they are willing to switch, and in my view, it would also need to be simple to use.
Wave is certainly compelling, but in its current form, as presented, it's not simple yet. As interesting as Wave may sound to the usual group of early adopters (like me), Google might have a tough time convincing the masses that this is a worthwhile switch and that is going to be a tougher sell for Google to make.