A B-listers first thoughts on Google Wave

– or – “Confessions of a Google Wave N00b”

After scrounging myself a B-list Google Wave preview, I’ve been playing around with it for a week or so. Rather than read more and think deeply about it, I thought I’d blurt out my half-formed opinions now. In fact, this is one of those posts I’ll probably regret in a year’s time. It might look as naive as some of my early thoughts on Twitter when I didn’t quite get it, but that’s blogging for you… so here goes.

Comparison with existing paradigms

When a new service comes along, it’s normal to bring along preconceptions from services you’re already comfortable with. New Twitterers tend to bring their Facebook habits, because they’re pretty similar right? Well it’s natural anyway; how else can you understand something so abstract? Look no further than email which is not much different from sending a letter in the post. This probably accounts for its widespread adoption by even the least technical of people.

The situation with Google Wave at the time of writing is that nobody really knows what they’re doing. There are no hardened Wavers to learn from, everyone is a n00b. So how do we use it? If I wrote this blog in a wave you could edit it, so it’s a wiki? It looks more like a discussion forum, but there’s an inbox, so it’s more like email? One of the KSPs is that the whole thing is real-time, so it’s a chat room?

The way I described Google Wave to Public was “MSN on steroids has a love child with Facebook”. I will undoubtedly regret this statement before long, if not already. The fact is that these preconceptions are not that useful. They may get us off to a flying start, but they constrain us to habits which may mask the format’s real potential. First and foremost, it’s a real-time medium, but it brings with it some associations that we may do well to shake off.

Google Wave as chat client

Of all the comparisons we might make, its most common adoption initially seems to be chat – Most of us are just using it like MSN. It’s far too easy to do this because the real-time element is so compelling. However, as soon as you fall into this trap you find things that break the model. How do you know when the person is online? How do you end a conversation when it stays in your “inbox” forever? These may only be superficial features that need to be addressed, but maybe not – maybe we’re just missing the point – it’s just not a chat room and we just need to get over that.

Google Wave as email

We are well used to the idea of sending messages that won’t get an immediate response. The etiquette of email may not be perfect, but at least it’s universally understood as an asynchronous exchange. You send an email in the same way you send a letter – it leaves your control and your copy is literally that. Eventually you may receive a new message.

Google Wave has a kind of inbox, although this familiar term is less useful when you realise it’s also an outbox. The process of starting a wave can appear similar to email – you add the addressee[s] and fire it off for their attention. As with email, your recipients may not be online but that’s not a requirement for sending an email; you don’t even need to know.

Perhaps the idea of basing electronic mail so closely on paper-based mail was a temporary solution that is well out of date and well overdue a successor. Google must want to fix this – Certainly Microsoft tried to fix email in the form of Microsoft Exchange, but that’s another blog post and I don’t want to get upset right now.

Google Wave as living document

A Wave need not be correspondence at all; it can just be a document. You can just publish it, whatever that means. Maybe you’ll add collaborators later when you’re ready. Maybe you’ll make it public and tag it with keywords. So in this sense it is more like a wiki, but let’s stop with the comparisons – Ultimately it’s what ever you want it to be – in Google’s own words:

“Google Wave is an online communication and collaboration tool that makes real-time interactions more seamless — in one place, you can communicate and collaborate using richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.”

The real-time shift

The biggest issue that underpins conversation around Google Wave is the web’s apparent evolution from archive to a real-time medium. However, I think even this distinction is something we have to get over. There’s a reason we no longer refer to the Internet as the “information super highway” … we know it’s full of information, so we don’t need to bang on about it all the time. Eventually the novelty of real-time will be as transparent as it is in the real world. Your consciousness and your memory are not mutually exclusive – you kinda need them both.

I think Google Wave will play a big part in continuing this blend of time and data, much like Twitter has started to do. It’s no secret that Google Search is not so hot when it comes to up-to-the minute data. They have certainly made improvements in this area, but their search index is fundamentally an archive.

The most exciting changes Google Wave brings about probably won’t be in the Wave client that we’re currently mucking about with – I can’t wait to see what developers start doing with gadgets, and bots and most importantly the underlying Wave protocol, but that’s another post.