Thanks to an invite from Garrett I gave Google Wave a spin today. There definitely is a lot of demand for something like Wave. Today my number one workflow and productivity app is email. I spend about 2 hours on it per day (according to RescueTime) and this doesn’t even count usage of it on the iPhone. Given how central it is for my productivity, it is pathetic how little it has improved over the past decade. Other than better embedding of media (images, PDF) and more reliable IMAP synchronization there really isn’t much of a difference between my mail client today and what I was using in 1999.
There are a number of alternatives to email for collaboration and communication, but none of them quite work yet. IM is real-time (good) but functionality is very limited (it lacks open APIs, no forwarding or other routing, no rich media). The social networks have built-in messaging, but the user interface is terrible. Wiki’s and Google Docs are great for collaboration, but have no messaging component.
Given all this, it’s great to see that a team at Google is trying a different approach. Google Wave is essentially a closed messaging system that structures messages around threads (aka conversations). Messages are updated in real time (i.e. you see people type), thus it also has many of the qualities of IM but also of the collaborative qualities of Google Docs or a Wiki. Conversations can easily be embedded in web pages, although I did not try this out. Finally it uses a number of clever ways to mark up and display messages in a more structured way. Overall it is a good user experience, although it still feels a little alpha.
The first thing to notice is the lack of integration. While it copies a lot of the functionality of other services, it doesn’t allow you to leverage existing ones. How do I migrate my existing social network and contact data into Wave, how do I integrate devices that are not web based (e.g. mobile devices) and users that want to use existing clients? While Google Wave gives you an email address <firstname.lastname@example.org> emails sent to it don’t show up in your inbox when I tried.
The second issue I see with Wave is the UI. Seeing people type in real time is great unless you want to get work done. I usually read about 200 emails in 75 threads and write somewhere around 50. The goal of a good UI is to hide things which are not currently relevant. Showing me someone is typing before he has finished his message is usually counterproductive. Google Wave also isn’t quite as responsive as GMail or let alone a local client. And speed really matters. At 200 emails a day, needing 3 seconds longer for each means an hour less productivity a week.
For me, the main conclusion is that Wave does not replace email. In fact, I think it doesn’t even try to. With some additional polish, Wave has the potential to be a powerful tool for groups to collaborate internally on projects and documents. Essentially a Google Docs with built in Workflow. But for external communication one would need a tool that offers better integration with other platforms and a UI that is written with the goal of getting things done.