Catch a wave, and you're sittin' on top of the world

Recently I was working on a writing project for our client Numara Software and was invited to use Google Wave by a product marketing manager there.  He was testing it out and thought it might cut down on the number of e-mail attachments we had flying back and forth and help us collaborate more easily.  I’d seen the buzz about Google Wave in the headlines, but didn’t really know what it was about.  But, hey, something invite-only from Google?  Of course I’d try it!

So I set up my account, signed in, and got ready to wave… whatever that could be.  I had something that looked like an e-mail inbox on my screen, and in it something suspiciously message-looking called “Welcome to Google Wave.”  I clicked and was greeted by a “Dr. Wave” in a white coat breaking glass in a pitch black science lab.

Thinking that I was smarter than this crazy mad scientist, I started clicking around elsewhere on my screen.  Dr. Wave disappeared.  Then I couldn’t get him back.  The video was nowhere to be found.  45 seconds into my Google Wave experience, I was confused.  (Never fear, a little sleuthing on YouTube, and I successfully tracked down the escaped mad scientist.)

If you haven’t used Google Wave yourself, it’s hard to conceptualize what it’s like.  Computerworld’s Preston Gralla provides a helpful, straightforward review in “Google Wave: It’s innovative, but is it truly useful?

Google describes Wave as “an online tool for real-time communication and collaboration. A wave can be both a conversation and a document where people can discuss and work together using richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.”

“An online tool for real-time communication” – Wave can be used like a simple instant messaging tool, but as such, it annoyed me, because I had to move from keyboard to mouse to click “Done” each time I finished a message (lazy, I know!).  And when Google says “real-time communication,” it means real time as in “oh crap, another typo, I can’t type when I know someone’s watching each letter pop up, whoops another one” and “uh oh, I should rephrase that, I really hope no one’s paying attention, because that was really not how I meant for the tone to come across.”

“For communication and collaboration – A wave can be both a conversation and a document.” – I think Wave’s primary strength right now is its ambition and vision.  There’s no shortage of innovative and good ideas that went into creating Google Wave – real-time group collaborations, keeping conversations about content and content in the same place – but sometimes it’s overwhelming.  Google Wave feels a little like trying to use e-mail, Word, and IM – at the same time in the same screen.  A great idea in theory, but I didn’t like it in practice.  Sometimes I didn’t want the conversation part happening right within the document-esque part.  It’s distracting, and I lost pieces of it.  My “inbox” would tell me there were new contributions to conversations, but they didn’t appear right at the top (like an e-mail chain) or right at the bottom (like an IM conversation).

Once I got over my insecurity about my typing skills, I was able to use Google Wave effectively to collaborate on the writing project, but it wasn’t nearly as easy as I wanted it to be.  Google Wave lacks the instantaneous, intuitive usability we’ve come to expect from our technology.

In my opinion, Google also faces a challenge because of its heritage.  Google’s search technology changed the world, and Wave’s organization is based on searching.  If you’ve ever missed being able to sort by sender or by oldest to newest in Gmail, you’ll have a small idea of why replacing organization entirely with phenomenal search capabilities can be frustrating.

The bottom line?  Google succeeds because its innovation pushes limits, but Wave is trying to push too many limits in too many directions all at once.  Google has never tried to hide that its product is a beta version, I’m not a developer (despite the IT nerd jokes I get in the office), so I don’t have access to some of the latest and greatest features people all over are working to create…but if Wave succeeds, I think it will look vastly different from the way it looks now.   I won’t rule out success, but I think it’s still a fair way down the road.

Contributed by Catharine Morgan.  Follow her @c_morgan