Google Wave: Early Impressions

I received my Google Wave invite early Thursday morning and basically decided to chuck my work for the day and play with it, which was easy to do because fortunately I don’t have any pressing deadlines at the moment. So here are some of my initial thoughts on GWave, based on several hours of fiddling. Bear in mind these are first impressions, which may or may not change over time; also bear in mind Google is still fiddling with GWave, and some things about it will almost certainly change before it’s opened up to the general public.

Google Wave basically strikes me as an innovative small business collaboration tool somewhat amusingly miscast as ZOMG THE THING WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE FOREVER, AMEN. Well, no. Google Wave will not replace your e-mail, paint your house, give you a kidney or push us all headlong into the singularity, to be translated into the vasty holds of Google’s data servers, where our virtual lives will be as in Azeroth, when we’re all leveled up and the griefers have been banished forever into a Atari 2600 Adventure cartridge. If you have a (preferably modest-sized) group of people you want to collaborate with on a project or document or online event, Google Wave could be a good and useful environment to do that work in. If you’re looking for it to do anything else, there are probably other things out there that do the job better, at least for the near-term future.

For example, e-mail. One of the things we’re told about Google Wave is that the people working on it tried to imagine what e-mail would be like if were being invented today rather than 30 or so years ago. Their answer seems to be that it would be like being in a room where everyone was talking all at once and you were supposed to be able to pay attention to everyone equally and give each person your full attention — a nice trick if you can manage it, which I’m not sure I can. GWave does this by generating a “wave”: An online space where anyone you allow to participate can start contributing at the same time as everyone else — everyone starts typing and you can see what they’re typing even as they’re backspacing to erase the typos.

Anyone of a certain technological age will watch a Wave in action and recognize what they’re seeing: It’s a chat room or an IRC channel, with substantially improved media-embedding capabilities. Google Wave hybridizes this by having the Wave exist as a standing document, so ostensibly you can walk away from it, come back later and not worry about having something vital scroll off the screen forever (you can even “playback” the Wave creation back to the time you left to see what you’ve missed). In practice (at least so far), the conversation still becomes rapidly unwieldy, and shuttling back and forth to find out what you’ve missed is a hassle, even with the discovery tools at your disposal.

As I was using the “playback” tool I was asking myself what material benefit it offered over, say, discrete e-mail responses organized in a thread, a la GMail. The putative answer is that all the conversation is in one discrete document (the “Wave”), so you don’t have to go looking for anything new. But a) at this point a GMail conversation thread effectively works as a single entity informationally, b) the nature of responding to e-mail already documents the position and time of responses, giving one a timeline, and c) searching e-mail for information is at this point a procedurally trivial task. A Wave certainly does get rid of redundancy (every bit of information from previous e-mails is often in a response e-mail, with only a bit of new information at the top), but the question is whether this efficiency advantage is substantial enough recommend tossing e-mail over the side for Wave-based communication. Let’s just say I’m not entirely convinced at this point.

I’m also pretty sure this won’t replace social media as it exists today either, which is another suggestion I’ve seen bandied about. Google Wave allows one to create a Wave and then publish it to a blog, whilst still allowing people to collaborate on the Wave (with the results ported to the blog). This is kind of a cool idea, especially if a blog has multiple authors — I can see multiple authors of a political blog embedding a Wave and then having each of the author collaborate on real-time commentary of a presidential debate or address, for example.

But the current design of Google Wave isn’t notably well-tuned to do what, say, Facebook and Twitter do so well, which is to efficiently ping a large group of people (one’s friends and followers) with a bite-sized status report about one’s life. Google Wave is good at helping assemble a contextually-relevant sub-set of people out of a larger pool of contacts and giving them a space to discuss something, but the question here is whether it’s better than, say, just sending out a Facebook private message (or an e-mail) with multiple recipients and letting them all have a discussion in the response thread.

Those are both “big picture” issues about Google Wave, but there are some “small picture” issues that annoy me as well. For example, one thing I really don’t like at the moment is that anyone in a Wave can edit anyone else’s comments; if you to write “I love cats,” in a Wave we’re both part of, I can go in and change it to “I murder cats” but it would still have your name on the words. And then I could take a screenshot of that Wave and post it up on my blog as an example of your evil, cat-slaughtering ways. Hey, it has your name on it! While I get that this sort of general editing ability is meant to foster collaboration, etc, in a “wiki” sort of way, there’s a difference between being able to collaboratively edit a document, and being able to go in and change around words that are being directly attributed to a person.

There might already be a way for someone to specify that his/her own personal replies aren’t editable by others, but if it’s there it’s not obvious (there’s a settings area, but it’s still under construction), and more to the point I think the default should be that personally-attributed comments are NOT editable rather than are. Since personal settings are being worked on this isn’t something I’m too worried about yet, but if GWave gets to public release without the ability to keep others from editing your comments, that’s going to be something that would keep me from using the service except in the most controlled and circumscribed way.

Another thing I find annoying: right now, when you type a response, the other people in the Wave can watch as you type. Two problems here. First, it’s distracting as hell and very much like trying to talk when someone else is talking in your ear. Second, philosophically speaking I don’t know that I want to let everyone see what I’m typing until I’m actually done thinking about it. When I type I do a lot of backtracking as I think of better ways to say what I want to say and/or I keep myself from sending a comment I know I’ll regret later. Also, I make a fair share of typos and other screw-ups as I type and I’d rather just fix those without other people looking.

Now, maybe that sounds silly, but I think there is an underlying issue that in some real way, the substance of what someone types (the content of the statement) could be undermined by the process and presentation of what someone types (typos, reconsidered statements, typing speed, etc). People certainly do let process/presentation get in the way of other types of communication; ask someone with a “hick” accent whether or not people make assumptions about them from the way they speak. All things being equal I’d prefer people focus on the words I intend to present, not manner in which those words are composed.

Again, we’re early in the GWave set-up and I really do expect we’ll get the option not to let others see us type, so this isn’t a big deal yet. But it’s something that would incline me against GWave if it’s not addressed.

This entry as been generally critical of Google Wave, so I feel like I should point out that I am having fun with it so far, and that I do think the more I play with it the more I expect to find myself able to do with it, so despite these early comments and criticisms I’m looking forward to digging into the tool more and seeing what it can do.

Just be aware this useful and potentially nifty tool will probably not, in fact, change life on the planet as we know it. And if by some chance it will, it’s going to change it in a bland and practical way. In short: perspective would be nice.

42 Comments on “Google Wave: Early Impressions”

  1. Thank you for the brief chat! Wave is much more fun now that there are actually people to talk to. :-)

    One small correction: As far as I know, if somebody edits one of your comments, then both your name and their name will be attached to the comment. So somebody could attempt to frame you for evil, cat-slaughtering ways, but they will fully visible as an editor of that comment, and the details of their dastardly behavior will be fully visible on playback.

    Still, I think this emphasizes an important fact about Wave: It’s much more useful for tallking with friends, colleagues and other generally sensible people than it is for communicating with random members of the public.

    In the short term, Wave is probably going to be most useful as an easy-to-use ad hoc wiki. The real-time collaboration and the WYSIWYG editor are considerably nicer than remembering a bunch of magic formatting codes.

    If anybody is on Wave and looking to chat, you can reach me at eric.kidd@(youknowwhere).com.

  2. Eric Kidd:

    “One small correction: As far as I know, if somebody edits one of your comments, then both your name and their name will be attached to the comment.”

    Huh. I didn’t see that when a friend edited one of my comments (for fun, not maliciously), but I went back and sure enough both of us were attributed to the comment. There might have been a back-end delay in showing that initially. Thanks for clarifying that.

    I’d still want to the option to lock people out of editing my comments, however.

  3. @Eric: Actually, that’s a good point that I don’t see Google responding to adequately at this point: the “DISREGARDS THIS, I SUCK ____” issue.

    Which, yeah, playback is supposed to solve, but how to do it when someone releases nowt but caps? Or a snapshot of the wave?

  4. The intent is that if you go into “draft” mode when you’re typing, then nothing appears until you’ve typed the entire message. Right now, the “draft” button is grayed out and thus unselectable, for some reason, but that’s what it’s for.

  5. Have you used Google Documents which allows for collaborative document editing, and if so how do you thing Wave compares to it?

  6. I remember seeing in the original Wave demo video thing that there is, or will be, a setting where you can turn off the “they see what you type while you’re typing” thing. I can’t imagine they’d leave it unchangeable, for precisely the reasons you don’t like it.

    I like the thought of using it as a project-information-management tool and even as a kind of version control. I also seem to recall them talking about that in the original video, and talking about the ability to selectively restrict edit rights that everyone in the Wave has. I guess the default settings are “open, super-collaborative, groovy woo woo,” whereas to really make it a powerful business tool some kind of permissions setup would be inevitable and again I can’t imagine them glossing over it.

    I see myself using it when I’m doing a project for a client, to consolidate the entire information chain surrounding, say, some video game cover art piece into a single easy-to-access thread. Email always seems to wind up getting fragmented; new threads are started, someone either forgets to hit Reply All or isn’t supposed to and does, attachments get lost or one critical person’s email app keeps messing up the files… Putting all the art direction, comments, changes, progress shots for review, etc. etc. in one place would be really helpful. Also, being able to have a “meeting” where I can sketch ideas or changes on existing art right in front of people could also speed things.

    I’m doing this sort of stuff pretty rigorously in Gmail using Labels, the To Do List and other features, but from the demo it seemed like Wave rolled it all up into one place.

    Now, the killer app to roll into Wave would be a really good hours-tracking app…

  7. Basically what you’re saying is that it’s a much more efficient, friendlier-looking version of the old collaboration software Groove. Good! I used to work at a place that made huge use of Groove, and oh holy lord, that is one persnickety program!

    Didn’t get an invite, and it seems the only way to get one (since I missed the contest due to LiveJournal only throwing me your feed once a day in large boluses) is to whore yourself out on Twitter RTing useless sockpuppet accounts that advertise they have “1,000 invites available!!!” so I think I’ll just…wait. I did go to the Google site and write the little essay as to why they ought to pick me, but hey.

  8. I don’t know about everyone else in the world, but I frequently have discussions on certain mailing lists where people reply to different parts of a long post, which spawn their own “threads”. This gets pretty ugly quickly in email, and is something I suspect will be a LOT nicer in Wave.

    Also: I just want to point out that Twitter seemed pretty dumb in 2006.


  9. Aww, John. You don’t need Google Wave to fabricate evidence of my evil, cat-slaughtering ways. You just need to take a look in my basement. Tee-hee.

  10. I was told the google wave machine could cook a turkey in twenty minutes And take your clothes to the cleaners. Have you got around to testing those functions yet?

    Because facebook and Twitter burned me on those and I don’t want to fall in love like that again. It’s just the aftermath is so brutal. Oh the drinking.

  11. On my blog, I’m currently offering to write a (probably pretty awful) sci-fi short story (involving robots!), starring whomever you’d like, to the person who graces me a Google Wave invite. I’m serious.

    Integrity? Feh, who needs it!

  12. John, I’m assuming GWave is part of Google’s “cloud” computing push?
    I honestly think the whole cloud computing craze is over-rated and won’t be nearly as popular as some bloggers seem to think.
    Some of your concerns are side effects of working in a space that is NOT actually on your machine, but in an area you don’t have control over. There’s millions of computer users these days, and I just don’t see so many of them trusting to that extent.
    With the amount of disk space available at reasonable cost these days, I am hard-pressed to see what advantages cloud computing – even for businesses – has over the current model, except for limited use.

  13. “Instantaneous” and “mutable” are bad words, not good words as some technophiles seem to believe.

    Jack Tingle

  14. I’m looking at this from a different angle. Among other things, I’m a Professional Registered Parliamentarian, which means I think about ways to hold good, effective meetings (in the sense of Robert’s Rules of Order).

    It seems to me like Google Wave would be a good tool for holding online meetings, above and beyond things like WebEx, for two reasons:

    1) It allows people not just to discuss and debate, but also to collaboratively work out things like the wording of motions.

    2) It allows a meeting to stretch out over times when people in different locales can be available, and yet also allows them to see how the discussion has gone before them (via the “playback” feature.

    If I ever score an invite, I’ll have to play around with this.

  15. Tom G @ 16: John, I’m assuming GWave is part of Google’s “cloud” computing push?

    Sort of, but not entirely. :-)

    Google’s Wave client does live in their cloud, and it runs in a web browser. But Google has already released some of the underlying code, and plans to release more sometime early next year.

    The code released by Google will allow people to build their own, in-house wave servers, and keep their data entirely within their company. And of course, private Wave servers will be able to talk to Google’s, and vice versa.

    To put it in SAT analogy form, Google Wave : wave :: Gmail : e-mail. :-) This seems to be a big part of Google’s plan.

  16. Tim Keating:

    “I just want to point out that Twitter seemed pretty dumb in 2006.”

    Oh, I don’t know. I thought it seemed all right back then.

    I do certainly agree it’s very possible people will use Wave in ways we (or Google) don’t anticipate and/or that some of the advantages of the tool will become more evident in time; this is why I covered my ass by noting these were early impressions.

    That said, at the point I really do see it more as a work tool than a social tool.

  17. John Scalzi @ 20: That said, at the point I really do see it more as a work tool than a social tool.

    Socially, I suspect that Wave will be most useful as a group decision-making tool. E.g., where should we go eat lunch? You can propose restaurants, debate their merits, and then use some kind of voting gadget to come to a semi-fair consensus.

    Wave gadgets, I suspect, are a pretty important part of any story about Wave. Using gadgets, you can vote, draw, play games, build maps, and do a thousand other things of varying utility.

    In other words, Wave is a platform, just like the web. For now, we’re back in the days of NCSA Mosaic, and everybody is reposting links to the “Cool Site of the Day” and going “ooooh!” at JPEGs from NASA. But there’s a lot of really interesting stuff still waiting to be built.

    So another good question is, what are the advantages and disadvantages of Wave compared to the web itself?

    A disadvantage: Wave is not really useful for communicating with large numbers of people.

    An advantage: Wave is very good at building small, ad hoc groups, and letting them collaborate in arbitrary ways.

    So if you’re building one of those Web 2.0 thingies, and you need to facilitate collaboration between small groups, you might want to think about building some sort of Wave application.

  18. So my initial impression of Google Wave sounds about correct. I’m not hearing any real advantage to using it for most of the things that I would do. Someone might find it useful, but it doesn’t quite have the hook as many other services do.

    LJ immediately showed it’s potential to me. I’ve never used Myspace, but I understand it’s appeal. Facebook offers some interesting and useful options (especially in it’s capacity to centralize all the other services I use, like Youtube, Twitter and others).

    Google Wave sounds like an MMO chat channel with collaborative functions. Maybe that’s useful for some Web 2.0 company that wants to edit documents online in real time with five editors…but I’m not getting a sense it’s terribly useful beyond that kind of thing. I’m more than willing to entertain the idea that it has more potential than this. But it’s initial ‘hook’ isn’t terribly compelling to me.

  19. If there is a back-end delay in attributing edits, that gives time for a malicious person to take a snapshot of the screen without the attribution. Of course, then the libeled could take a snapshot afterwards and show what the dirty deed doer did.

    I, too, believe I would work mostly in draft mode. I think a lot of people who consider themselves “word warpers” would. We are happy with our finished results, not always the process that gets us there. And we may not want eternal record of the process.

    I imagine a wave between only two people would resemble a chat room much less.

    I look forward to testing this out myself.

  20. I wonder about the possibilities of using Wave to collaboratively create or edit fiction. I would if it would feel like improv acting.

  21. Hmm, so *that’s* what G-wave is all about? I actually had no idea. But now that I do, I’m kinda glad I didn’t win the invite contest.

    Bhlrrrgh! Too busy looking for me. And others seeing what you type as you type it? Aww, hell naw! That’s a deal-breaker right there.

  22. Thanks for the honest, hands on review. After reading the Ars Technica review where the author gushed about it being the second coming and thank goodness we can finally get rid of this horrible email mess, let’s just say I’ve been a bit skeptical about how “fair and balanced” these reviews are.

    From the preview info I’ve been reading, it seems my initial guess at it fits your experience with it. For one thing, they seemed to hype the instantaneous collaboration aspects of it, but that’s actually a big turn off for me. There’s already enough dumb on the internet, I’d rather read people’s thought out responses, not their instantaneous responses as they think of them. But maybe I’m just getting old.

    I don’t deny it has it’s uses, especially as a project management/discussion tool. But I’ve been trying to think of how GWave could help me today, but I’m not coming up with much. I’m sure it’ll be handy as slicker wiki/messageboard hybrid. But beyond that, it’s got a ways to go.

    Maybe as Eric Kidd says up @22, it’s still in the NCSA Mosiac level of development. Heck, I remember those days of the internet before there was even a Table tag and look at it now. So I’m willing to accept that sometime in the future amazing things can happen with GWave that few us can envision, but I just don’t see it being very useful to me today.

  23. @22 Eric: I use AIM Blast for the group lunch thing. Sure, it doesn’t have a poll widget thingy, but we’re mostly adult enough or apathetic enough to agree that we’re going to Anita’s.

  24. “GWave does this by generating a “wave”: An online space where anyone you allow to participate can start contributing at the same time as everyone else — everyone starts typing and you can see what they’re typing even as they’re backspacing to erase the typos.”

    I can’t wait until it becomes the matrix greenscreen with falling characters we read like text.

  25. Another Liz @ 30: Fair enough. I have a lot of highly opinionated friends, and too many good restaurants nearby. :-)

    For an alternative social use of Wave, imagine that you’re visiting a con in a nearby city, and you want to plan some local trips with your friends. You can add a handful of friends to the Wave, and then build an annotated Google Map together, and write down some notes on places you’d like to visit. And as you work, your conversation can sort of gradually morph into a wiki.

    After the event, you can take advantage of Wave’s photo sharing features. Send out another wave, and ask everybody to drag and drop their favorite photos into the wave. Once you’ve collected all the photos, choose Images > Copy to New Wave and presto, you have a collaborative photo album. (As far as I can tell, Wave tracks who contributed each photo.) You can even display the photos as a slide show.

    Now, it’s entirely possible that these scenarios do nothing for you. :-) But they amuse me sufficiently. I’ve been using Wave for about a month (and developing new toys to run on top of it), and I keep discovering new stuff that makes my life a bit more pleasant. So maybe it’s just a matter of communication style, or something like that.

    But despite all these “social” examples, I do agree with Scalzi: Wave is more a work tool than a social tool.

  26. Wave has attractions for me because it looks like it is the first attempt to solve a problem I’ve had at work. In a typical day, I get lots of emails and lots of IMs. By the end of the day, it is not uncommon to have eight chat windows open. I’ve found chat to be extremely useful in a software engineering group because it allows fast, informal communication without being as interruptive as talking to someone directly or on the phone.

    The troubles with chat is that it is completely non-searchable, and if you have multiple machines, there’s no way to integrate all your chat logs into one blob.

    The current corporate email environment (Exchange) is also pretty much crap in terms of organization and search. Nothing is more irritating than remembering that someone sent you a vital piece of info and not being able to remember whether it was by email or IM.

    It is/was my hope that Wave would solve a lot of this.

    The “type as you go” seems to me a throwback to the very earliest chat system I ever used, back on Apple ][s in the early eighties. I don’t see any utility in it, and in my own work environment I would be afraid that it would scare off some of the non-native English speakers on the team. (Or even the bad typists/spellers…I sure as hell don’t want anyone to know how many words are underlined red before I’ve fixed them.)

    I haven’t actually tried it myself. The guy I knew with invites a couple weeks ago reported it was buggy and unstable and so I didn’t take one. Now he has none. :-(

    I really do think that Google has hit on a problem that needs solving. Whether they’ve done it is an open issue.

  27. Actually, Wave can be pretty quiet, at least at first, if (a) there’s no one looking for you (I’m a much less public figure than our host, who graciously chatted with me for a while), and (b) you don’t look for public waves.

    I didn’t know there even were public waves until recently. (Search for with:public in your wave search tool.) They seem a bit chaotic, now, and it’s a bit of a hack to set them up. I don’t know if they’ll be worthwhile or not. For open, large-group discussion, comment threads like this one would seem to work better.

    I also don’t know how fast they’re adding new people. None of my “nominations” from yesterday morning seem to have generated an invite yet.

    But it does look like it has potential, despite the rough edges. I agree with John than small group collaboration seems the most obvious useful application, and it provides a number of useful integrated tools for that.

  28. Steve Burnap @ 33: A huge number of Wave bugs have been fixed in the last month. For example, it used to be nearly impossible to get certain waves out of your inbox. Many of these problems have disappeared since the middle of September.

    There’s still a few really critical Wave features missing:

    1) Undo. This is actually very well supported at the protocol level; they just haven’t gotten around to adding a UI for it yet.

    2) Hiding real-time typing. Again, this is a (relatively) simple feature to add, but Google will have to reorganize some of the underlying Wave libraries a fair bit.

    3) Better permissions and access control. Some waves should clearly be read-only; others should allow comments but no editing. And some waves should forbid certain participants from adding new participants.

    4) Federation with non-Google Wave servers. Some major progress is expected in this area by the end of the month.

    It’s worth noting that Wave is currently a very early preview—it’s not even one of those infamous Google betas yet. :-) The Wave team has been working flat out for the last several months to get ready for the September 31sr rollout, and a lot of their recent effort has gone into either low-level upgrades (down at the protocol level) or into heavy bug fixing. So expect some pretty major improvements between now and Christmas.

  29. Real-time typing visibility on chat? It’s like the debatable old days of talk/ntalk/ytalk, during the dark ages of the Internet.

    Once upon a time, I really hated that AIM didn’t work that way. Then I realized I liked AIM’s way better, especially after they started telling you when the other person started typing. I’m not sure I can go back now…

  30. I’m curious to see how it might work with my writing group. We currently use Google Docs to do our critiques, each critiquer using a different color to type in comments. We once had an international meeting when I was on vacation, using GoogleDocs and gChat, so it would be interesting to see how this would improve on that. One of our members is leaving town and wants to come back once a month, but maybe he can come virtually every week.

  31. Its probably good that I didn’t win the contest. That bit about people watching me type would have me on edge. At least 75% of the things I initially type into a chat window get deleted before I hit send. Being overly shy, I tend to give everything a good review before it leaves my mouth. The same goes for my online communications.

    Thinking back, the percentage of misfires for ‘Whatever’ comments is probably even higher. I wonder why I am more reluctant to post comments here? I guess I prefer that Scalzi’s wit not be directed at me.

  32. Google Wave seems promising a new digital interactivity and created high expectations among surfers. I like some features such as ability to reproduce the talks (playback), Translate in real time when we communicate with someone speaking another language, and it’s integration with Twitter and other social networks. Google Wave really can turn into a revolution in social conversation!

  33. One benefit I can see right off the bat is the ability to walk away from the conversation. At my work we get numerous conversations between two people who continue to hit Reply All, repeatedly sending their little tête-à-tête out to dozens of people who couldn’t care less. Being able to extract myself from such conversations would save me lots of aggravation during my workday.

    On a side note: as I was scrolling through the replies, I thought I was seeing things until I tilted my screen back. I never realized you had added your mug as a kind of watermark to your comments. Kind if creepy-cool!

  34. Having been in the Wave dev preview for some time now, I wanted to point out something very critical:

    This thing is *VERY* beta. VEEEEEEEERY beta! Critical features are absent at the moment! Reserve final judgment for final product!
    The preview you’re playing with is about 10 times more stable than the Dev sandbox we’ve been playing in, and I’m sure you’ve noticed even the “public” beta is not completely stable.

    I also think that, once you get used to it, Wave beats email pretty handily. It really just takes a bit of a paradigm shift. It’s interesting to watch wave newbies attempt to use it as though it were email, or a chat, or something else. It takes a while to get into the mindset, but it’s extremely important to recognize that it’s not any other format you’ve ever used.

    Feel free to ping me as joshua.proehl on wave if you need someone to talk to. :-)

  35. If the Google Wave team is still reading this, I have three words for you: GOOGLE DOCS INTEGRATION.

    The Google Wave superchat is all well and good, but I want the team in a given wave to be able to refer and possibly edit a document outside of that chat — a spreadsheet or a word doc or something. Allowing me to throw up a Google Doc spreadsheet as one of the panels would immediately turn Wave from a curious toy into a powerful tool.

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