Google Wave - what it is and isn't

Posted on November 5, 2009

This is part one of a short series of essays on how I have been using Google Wave and my take on the system.
You can find the main article and index to the whole series here.

What it is

Google Wave is a product from Google which is, at the time of this writing, in a “technology preview” stage (what this means is that it is in a stage before beta, when things are out there for a few people to start using it and help the wave team find and fix the most prominent problems/bugs/misfeatures. It is not –yet– intended for generalized use and people should bear that in mind when using it and trusting their valuable information to it).
It has been touted by many as a “email killer” and an “instant messaging killer” by but I will argue that that is a gross misconception of what wave is and it’s potencial. Sure, it can be used in any of those ways, but as I’ll explain later on, there are nearly no benefits to be gained by doing so and there are some drawbacks to it.

What is is (in my view, at least) is a very powerful and useful collaboration tool and a way of replacing the abusive way in which people in large groups or corporations use email.
The best uses I’ve came upon so far involved things like planning events/trips, doing research on specific topics, producing requirement documents and planing development of software projects and I’ll expand on that on a future article.

What it’s not

Like I said before, people tend to think that once they get into the wave they’ll eventually stop using email and instant messaging as a means of communicating and connecting with other people. I don’t think this will happen –at least not with the current implementation of wave– and I’ll try to explain why.

Not Email

It is not a substitute for email, it is a substitute for the way people (especially in groups/corporations) abuse email.

Most people have been, at one time or another, involved in “the mail thread that never dies”. You know the one I’m talking about, where one person sends an email to a group about some subject that needs to be discussed in order to reach some kind of decision.
That first mail contains maybe a few points that the person considers important enough to be discussed by this group and elicits a few responses. And also, invariably, a forward or two to someone else that one of the recipients thought should be in on it. Now these responses also elicit other responses from the group and soon someone who wants to reply to item a) on the original email has to reply to a dozen mails, all of each talk about that particular item.
As the list of people receiving the email grows, so does the confusion, until it becomes nearly impossible to make head or tail of it. (And don’t even get me started on the subject of top posting in this context…)

If you work at a corporation that’s large enough this is part of your work setting, day in and day out. And then you’re probably also involved in document editing and revising via email. Yes, I’m talking about the “have you read my alterations to section 5.3.7 of the first draft? No not the one Mrs. A altered, I based my alterations on the version Mr. B did his alterations on” nightmare. (Yes, there are ways of alleviating this, but you just know sooner or latter this things will happen.)

And this is the kind of usage that is an abuse on email, but is just a perfect fit for something like wave.
Wave can substitute email as a distributed document editing platform and a fast discussion/brainstorming mechanism, but not as a document distribution/message sending one. Because documents in wave are always living things and you don’t have versions per se, so if you want to send someone “the final version of document X” you’re better off emailing it to them rather than granting them access to the wave that document is being created on (please note that “granting access” to a wave is not something you can do right now, I’ll talk about this in a future article).

Not instant messaging

It is also not a substitute for instant messaging. Even though it does provide a way of chatting in real time, this communication is only effective and useful in the context of the immediate document being collaborated on. Using it to chat up your buddies is not efficient or interesting.

Even in the context of the wave, sometimes things aren’t very easy as far as chatting goes (mostly due to the way the current interface shows other people writing in real time).
On the one hand this interface does give you the ability to use the system on a chat-like way when discussing what it is you’re doing on the document. On the other hand it is a) distracting and b) an open invitation to start answering whatever it is the other people is writing while she is still writing it, which is something we do all the time in real world physical conversations but that doesn’t work so well in written communication because of the lack of all the clues we get from context and body language. We often find ourselves answering a paragraph that the other people is still writing up, only to find that our question is answered a bit later. Oops, wasted effort and unnecessary noise.

Instant messaging is a means of communication that is well established and has been around long enough to be well understood by people. It is very useful and practical and there really is no justification for it to go away and be replaced by something that does a whole lot more and is –therefore– rather unieldy for that purpose.

Not a wiki

Wikis are also tools for collaboration and group editing/creation of documents, but they are very different in that they only allow one person to edit a section of the document at a time (otherwise you get conflicts that need to be resolved by the humans doing the editing), they have explicit versions of each page and they don’t have the fine grained structure that wave does, with the wavelets and blips (something I’ll go deeper into in yet another future article).

One thing that the wave has in common with a wiki is the apparent need for curation or gardening. This is something that seems to crop up in every kind of platform that enables collaborative editing of stuff –people start writing and replying to everything that’s going on in the document and soon enough the side-threads that led up to the “finished” document just become clutter.
Once again a wave, if properly used, makes this gardening far easier to do than on a wiki, as the discussions should be held on wavelets close to the point being discussed and can them be deleted as the “gardener” is refactoring and cleaning-up the document. On a wiki the discussion is (usually) right there on the document, together with the “real” content or else it happens on a side “chat” page, which is a separate entity altogether and forces you to switch between it and the document you’re working on at the time.

All in all, I find the wave much more similar to a wiki than to email, but it is not the same thing at all.