Friday, October 2, 2009

Google's Wave is a Tsunami of Conversation

Human communication is a magical thing, and over the last decade, we've acquired some super-powers. We've had the telephone for a hundred and thirty three years and it is still developing. Nowadays you can hardly set your twelve-year-old loose in the mall without packing a cell phone, and people are dying because they just have to send texts while driving. Just think about all the "conversation" tools we've added since the birth of the internet: e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, mailing lists, bulletin boards, blogs, various and sundry social networks, Facebook, Skype, Twitter. Our use of these tools will continue to evolve, but at some point there's going to be a consolidation. Do we really need both Twitter and Facebook?

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get an invitation to the Google Wave Preview. I have no idea whether Wave will be the next big thing, but I can tell you it won't fail for lack of ambition. Unlike Twitter, which started with a concept so simple that it sounded really stupid, Wave starts by imagining what email would look like if its designers were to start from scratch, knowing what we know today. The result is a daunting attempt to roll all of our communication superpowers into a single user interface. At first, I couldn't really figure out how to get Wave to do what I wanted it to do. Part of the problem was that some of the features mentioned in the help videos had not been activated in the Preview version, though they are still working in the "Sandbox" version which has been available to developers for a few months now. Other things just don't work yet- the contacts module seems very buggy, which is a big problem because you need that to connect with other "Wavers". Luckily, my multitool communications mischmash is still working, and I was able to find some friends (via Twitter and Facebook) who were in the same situation as myself, still stumbling around a dark room of functionality, looking for someone to connect with.

With some help here and there, I gradually figured things out. Wave introduces several new (to me) user-interface widgets; it struck me that web applications rarely introduce new interface widgets, unlike applications like Excel or Photoshop that put powerful capabilities in inteface objects. I still haven't figured out the sliders. The threaded discussions have little colored boxes that indicate who is typing something. The overall effect is that gMail has been tricked out and turbocharged. After a day of playing with it, I'm not sure I like the user interface, but I can't really think af any way to make it better given the scope of what Wave is trying to do.

The focus of Wave is editable, threaded conversations, i.e. waves. (There's already a convention to use lower case w for the conversations and upper case W for the platform as a whole.) These are quite well done. They support hierarchical threading, styled text, auto-linking, distributed editing, history, history playback, insertion of images, videos, and software objects known as extensions (there is a poll widget pre-installed). The one thing that's missing is undo. I can think of all sorts of uses for these capabilities; I intend to try a few over the next week or so.

The intro videos plug a tool called Bloggy that allows you to publish a wave to your blog. Bloggy is a robot that you add as a participant in your conversation. I spent about an hour trying to figure out how to get Bloggy to work, until I discovered (via Twitter) that Bloggy had not been activated on the Preview version yet.

Having failed with Bloggy, I started thinking "Is that all there is?" and envying Google's white-hot overhype machine. But then @jillmwo pointed me to the way to search on public waves (put "with:public" before a search). Immediately the little ripply waves I was seeing turned into a tsunami, and I began to see the enormous possibilities of Wave. To make a wave public, you add a participant called "Public" ( to the wave; "Bloggy" does the same thing.

The ability to search public waves (and to make your own public wave) is a feature qualitatively different from anything I've seen before. A public wave is sort of the bastard offspring of a Twitter hashtag mated with a Wikipedia topic page. When it matures, this creature will surely be a monstrous beast; what no one can tell yet is whether the beast will be a tame workhorse or whether it will be a velociraptor requiring a good strong cage. New technology is always easy to create and control compared to new social practice.

If it was me trying to invent email from scratch, I would spend 80% of my effort on spam prevention. It looks to me as though many of Wave's feaures have been hidden in the Preview because the functions needed for spam prevention are not ready yet. This is not to say that the Wave team is not spending 80% of its effort on spam prevention- these are incredibly hard things to get right. As an example, it's currently not possible to remove a participant from a wave, and any public wave participant can see the addresses of all the other participants. The problems with the contacts module are also probably related- waves from people you might not know just appear in your inbox, even though it looks like the intent is for them to first appear in the "Requests" folder in the "Navigation" module. Groups are also not yet implemented. It's difficult to know how this will play out until we see everything working.

Since the Preview roll-out, there have been quite a number of negative reviews by people pointing to all the problems in Google Wave. I think these are missing the point to some extent. Sure, Wave could end up being a complete failure, but even if that happens, Wave is giving us today a glimpse of what the future could look like. If not Wave, then surely there will be a SuperTwitter or a SpaceBook or maybe even a MagicForce that will contend for the consolidation of our one hundred flowers of conversation.

Note: this post will also be published as a public wave.

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  1. While Wave may be a good preview of a future communication platform, I'm quite concerned about the technical details:

    You have already mentioned spam. I think there is no efficient way how to fight spam in current Wave architecture. The architectural problems needs to be addressed first before Wave can succeed, or it will turn into that bloodthirsty beast.

  2. I have a preview account but nothing works, contacts can not find a user and search for public:"Keyword" doesn't return any thing at all. What am i doing wrong...?

  3. Ajit- don't for get the "with" in "with:public [keyword]"; add, and he'll add public for you. clunky UI, isn't it?