Google Wave: my initial thoughts

So I received my invite to Google Wave one week ago, and have been playing with it off and on since then.  It’s a fascinating platform, not quite what I expected, and it’s been really interesting to think about potential applications and uses of the platform.

My initial impression upon logging in was that it was a typical Google app, visually very clean, colorful, and smooth. I had some idea of how things worked from watching their tech demo video, so I began to play around with creating and joining waves. For those of you who haven’t geeked out to this as much as I have yet, “waves” are the individual threads (documents?) that the platform is built to create and share. The wave can be just yours, which would make it functionally similar to an office document, or you can collaborate on it by inviting other users to join the wave, or by making it public. Once a wave has multiple users, the users can edit the wave itself, either by changing the “base” wave or by adding comments, discussion threads, links, or other media. These individual additions each have their own privacy settings as well, so if I wanted to comment on a wave but only wanted the original author of the wave to see my comment, I could do that. The wave itself remembers each of these edits and the order in which they happened, and so all waves are able to be “replayed” so that the user can see how the document has evolved to the state it is in now.

Needless to say, Wave is very community-oriented. As a simple document creator/editor it is a decent tool, but Google Docs provides a much more versatile and stable interface. Perhaps this will change in the future, but it feels like that is not the primary goal of the Wave team here.  As such, it’s not a lot of fun to use or explore until you have other people to communicate with – this is where public waves and friends lists come into play.

The first public wave I tried joining was Lifehacker’s public wave, and I was able to without any difficulty, but this is where I experienced my first big drawback to Wave: it’s laggy. As it is right now, the platform places rather intense demands on the browser and probably the server as well, so joining a wave with hundreds of updates and users was an exercise in frustration as I waited for the page to unlock and let me get back to the calmer seas of my boring inbox. At this point, I cannot even open that particular wave, apparently due to its sheer size and the amount of junk that was dumped in it by all the contributors. While Google has an exceptional record on scalability in their software, they aren’t quite there yet with Wave – but frankly, that’s fine with me. I can’t see myself in any situation where I would need hundreds of contributors to a document like this.

After sending invites to a couple of my friends, I was able to get some group waves going. It quickly became clear that Wave when used for communication is not quite a replacement for email; it’s more like a hybrid between email and IM. The record is updated immediately on both ends and can be replied to, tagged, edited, or broken down by the other users, which allows for the clear, immediate, and threaded communication that email lacks, while offering significantly more organization and power than a normal IM conversation. I was surprised to find that you can’t send waves as emails yet, as this was something that I understood would be integrated into the platform as one of its key features.

I can see a lot of excellent potential uses for this platform. Collaborative document editing is the obvious first one, but imagine taking that further: Wave would be an excellent platform for educators, allowing teachers and students to communicate directly. I could turn in work to a professor on Wave, and he could note potential changes that need to be made. This line of communication is easier and more natural than handing in and turning back assignments and papers, and also gives clear documentation to both the student and teacher. Similar applications could be applied for a manager to employee relationship. Wave would also be great for groups planning events or brainstorming. The ease and integration of various media into Wave means it would allow for easy and powerful photo or video sharing with friends and family, such as allowing for virtual “family albums” to exist that could be easily updated from anywhere by anyone that’s invited.

Wave is an amazing platform with huge potential and I like what I see so far, but it is still very rough around the edges. There is no easy ‘undo’ feature and Ctrl+Z doesn’t work, which can be very irritating. The service can be laggy, and occasionally crashes (although it has really awesome error screens). It still is missing a lot and has a bit of a learning curve, so if you’re a casual user, you’ll want to give Google some more time to polish this before trying it yourself. However, if you’re dying to find out how Wave works, or are just a glutton for geeky punishment, I have a few invites remaining – and I might be convinced to give them out. You can reach me from the contact form on the sidebar, or holler at me on Twitter.

And this kicks off NaBloPoMo!  Remember that if you have any topics or suggestions on what you’d like to see me write about here, I’d love to hear them.

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