Friday, February 12, 2010

What About Google Wave?

I'm a technology enthusiast. Let me rephrase that: I'm a software enthusiast. Every time I can lay fingers on a new piece of software, I do. I have installed and run VirtualBox on my computer, just for the sake of it; I use Cygwin daily. I don't need but use OneNote because the concept is cool. I'm currently learning Powershell scripting and my navigator of choice is Chrome, just because Google decided to use processes instead of threads. And, of course, when Google Wave was announced at Google I/O, I couldn't wait to put my hands on it!

At first I was, of course, astonished. Google delivered almost everything the presentation first promised, which was indeed a lot. At first look, I found the tool to be very similar to a web forum. I even guess that was one of the goals, uniting the community activity of forums to email. As a tool, everything was sleek and had that "Google touch", which means good quality, a lightweight interface, strange coloring, etc. The site makes extensive use of AJAX to offer a seamless interface and dynamic loading of data. The load time for the items are as expected: good as long as they aren't cluttered with posts.

The best features are the phenomenal integration with YouTube! and Gears, the possibility to upload files to a persistent location which makes sharing that more easier (even though I haven't really discovered the size limit for each file) and the formating, which is very present, so users are encouraged to write visually rich "articles". Finally, some of it's real-time features can add something to the experience, even though I think that is far from being one of the product's best qualities.

But, whereas technically Google Wave stands out as a very polished tool filled with features, conceptually, it's flawed. Google aimed high and large: Wave was going to replace e-mail, forums, IM, etc -- almost every well established electronic communication tool out there. And the application had a list of features to make up for each of those tools that we use. Problem is, as it's usually the case with swiss-knives kinds of software (or any product, for that matter), Wave accomplishes almost none of the replacements it proposed itself to:

When compared to forums, you will discover that not being "public" makes Wave less than useful. It's cool to discuss about that new movie with your friends, but community boards will enable you to get a different point of view every now and them, so important to discussions.

And then Wave should replace e-mail. E-mails chains are like stacks of information. Everyone adds something to the top, and you "can't" change what already has been done (on some cases, e-mail is more a tree, because of simultaneous replies, but that doesn't happens very often). Wave, however, threats information like a "live" document, which is compatible with the Collaboration Age (or Collaboration Wave, as one might call...). So what you said yesterday may change today, or even cease to exists. It's confusing. There's a feature that tries to solve (patch) that, called "history", but it's like a pain to use it to check what you missed. On a e-mail, you just have to scroll-down the screen a bit and there it's, that last piece of info that you forgot to read. On Wave's History, you will keep going back and forth until you discover what was there but isn't anymore.

And IM? Well, Google shouldn't even have proposed that. IM works because you have a small icon on your desktop that you can double-click in order to get a list of contacts and start talking with whoever is online. It's that simple. On wave, to IM, you use the IM panel, which is just like a sized-down version of Google Talk... So, why would you? Isn't it easier to Google Talk anyway?

All things said, I must add that the worst part of Google Wave is the problem that, for a dynamic application, the topics are treated very statically. Let's say you send your pals an e-mail about that latest game for Playstation. You start talking how it reminded you of a certain movie, and before you know, your friends started talking about movies. After a while, the subject changes slightly, after another friend adds that this actor was once arrest for drug use, and then you're discussing the lives of the famous. That's is a bit chaotic, indeed, but so are conversations. They rarely ever turns into what we wanted in the first place... once they begin, they become live things that change whenever something different is said, because that's the way the brain works, by making free association of ideas. When you try to have this same conversation in Wave, however, things get a bit confusing. Since Waves are so clearly persistent, you look at them that way. You start a Wave about a trip to Europe, you hope people only talk about that in there, which doesn't happens. Someone ends up saying something about a bar or restaurant, someone remembers about another one in your own city, and all the sudden your Wave about Europe is now arranging a dinner with your friends. And worse, since you can post anywhere (Waves are flattened-down trees), the subjects are intertwined. One can argue that this would resemble our thinking process even better than e-mail, but as a tool, it gets messy.

All-in-all, Google has offered us a nice product, with nice features, that is useless only because all its older brothers are more effective at what it does.