Mobile // Mobile Applications
Commentary
11/30/2009
12:22 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
Commentary
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Is Wave A 'Concept Car' For Google?

I'm wondering if Google Wave is like a concept car for Google. We'll never see it in production--but all of its features and capabilities will emerge in other products released by Google and other companies. Google Wave solves some very real business problems. But I think even Google will have trouble getting companies to adopt it.

I'm wondering if Google Wave is like a concept car for Google. We'll never see it in production--but all of its features and capabilities will emerge in other products released by Google and other companies. Google Wave solves some very real business problems. But I think even Google will have trouble getting companies to adopt it.Google says Wave is "what e-mail might look like if it were invented today." If you haven't tried Wave, you probably think that's an empty marketing slogan, that it sounds catchy but means nothing. But if you have played with Wave, you see that it's actually the best possible description. If you took a bunch of Web 2.0 geniuses, locked them in a room, and asked them to invent a system that solves the major problems with using e-mail in a business environment, you'd end up with something like Wave.

Wave is primarily a hybrid of document collaboration software, like Google Docs, with e-mail, with added elements of wikis, online discussion forums, and instant messaging.

In particular, Wave is much better than e-mail if you've got a group of people collaborating on a business problem. That means Wave is primarily a tool for enterprises and other businesses.

Two of the major problems that Wave solves: The conversational-threading problem, and the document-versioning problem.

The threading problem happens as people start replying to a group e-mail. Soon you have multiple copies of the conversation flying around the e-mail group. Each message has the entire preceding conversation appended as a quote. This is not so bad if you've been following the conversation from the beginning, but it's overwhelming if you're joining the conversation in the middle--somebody copies Sanjit from sales, and now Sanjit is walking in on a conversation that's three days old, with dozens of messages already exchanged, and he's receiving them in no particular order, with lots of duplicates. Moreover, probably by now the conversation has broken up into multiple threads, and Sanjit only gets one of the threads, so he's still excluded from a big part of the conversation.

Another problem: Versioning. That happens when people start passing around documents as attachments, and making changes to the documents, and nobody keeps track of the changes, and pretty soon there are multiple versions of the document flying around, which some poor shlemiel has to collate together.

Wave solves those problems by storing conversations on the server, and keeping the thread structure intact. It works like a discussion board. Want to add Sanjit to the conversation? Just add him--he'll be able to review the threads and replies in their original format and order, and get caught up.

Likewise, anyone on a single Wave conversation--a single conversation is called, sensibly enough, a Wave--can edit any document in that wave, including other people's replies, so there are no problems with versioning. (On the other hand, I do see a potential problem with keeping track of who really said what.)

Because the conversations lives on the server, Wave helps limit consumption of IT resources. When multiple copies of the same document are flying around in a hot e-mail discussion, those copies eat a lot of disk space. That's less of a problem with Wave--only one copy of each wave.

Wave solves some very real problems for enterprise collaboration. And Wave offers other benefits as well: It combines e-mail, wikis, discussion boards, and instant-messaging in a single open source package. Using an add-on from a company called Ribbit, you can even initiate a conference call with all participants in a Wave with a single click of a button.

So why don't I think Wave will be generally adopted? The answer is contained in one word: Inertia.

Wave is hard to use. The interface looks a little like e-mail, a little like a discussion board, and a lot like nothing you've ever seen before. If you have the hacker nature, you'll feel compelled to figure it out, and you'll be able to do it in a few hours, without too much trouble.

But most people in the workplace don't' have that hacker nature. They don't want to take time to learn to use new systems, they just want to do their jobs. It's extremely difficult to get corporate workers to check in regularly on a new platform--Twitter, Facebook, an internal corporate discussion program. They'll say: "I don't have time for this nonsense, I have real work to do." And as long as they're meeting their sales quota, or keeping the factories running, or whatever it is that's their real job, they won't be punished for their intransigence.

Anybody who's ever tried to get social media adopted in an enterprise computing environment knows that it's hard. It's true even inside many technology companies. A small group of people in the company become social media enthusiasts, and the rest of the company looks on them like eccentric relatives. Google Wave would just be more of that same, following on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.

And yet Wave does, in fact, solves some real problems for enterprises. Which is why, while I don't think we'll see Wave gain much traction in the enterprise, we will see its features and capabilities migrated into existing technologies, probably e-mail.

One of Wave's biggest current problems is lack of e-mail integration. You can't even get an e-mail notification when a Wave you're following is updated. Even that kind of notification would be just the beginning for Wave--people do have a tendency to ignore e-mail notifications. For Wave to become mainstream, it needs to be completely integrated with e-mail, so that your Wave and your e-mail are the same place. That seems do-able--the two technologies seem complementary--but it seems like a huge job, one I don't see getting under way until 2011.

But if Wave gets integrated with Gmail, well, the result would be enormously powerful. It would be e-mail with many of the major problems solved. As Google finally starts gaining traction in the enterprise, with recent adoptions by Jaguar Land Rover and the city of Los Angeles, Gmail + Wave could be a big enticement to enterprise users.

These are just some thoughts I've had after a little bit of playing with and reading about mail. I'm by no means trying to predict the future here, just saying what I'm thinking at the moment. What do you think about Wave?

P.S. After I wrote the preceding, but before I posted it, I came across an evaluation of Wave from Paul Buchheit, who created Gmail and who now works for Facebook. He writes that he only got around to trying Wave recently, and gives his impressions. Then he concludes:

So now that I've tried Wave, do I expect it to kill email? No. The reason that nothing is going to kill email anytime soon is quite simple: email is universal (or as close to it as anything on the Internet). Email has all kinds of problems and I often hate it, but the fact is that it mostly works, and there's a huge amount of experience and infrastructure supporting it. The best we can do is to use email less, and tools like Wave and Docs are a big help here.

I don't know what Google has planned for Wave or Gmail, but if I were them I would continue improving Wave, and then once it's ready for the whole world to use, integrate it into Gmail. Moving Wave into Gmail would give it a huge userbase, and partially address the "email is universal" problem.

Great minds think alike.

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