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Google Wave: Right Question, Wrong Answer?

May 29, 2009 by Kohan Ikin

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If you're a techie or a developer, you've probably heard of Google Wave by now. It's the new project Google is working on that replaces email, Facebook, blogs, Twitter... perhaps even the web itself. Google Wave is based on the question: "What would email look like if it was invented today?"

Google Wave does have some interesting ideas - but in my opinion, there's a lot that's wrong with it too.

The Google Wave Team

Google Wave Is A "Single Point Of Failure"

Google Wave encourages you to make everything a "wave". An email is a wave, your tweet is a wave, your blog comments are each Waves that go through a Wave Server.

But several times during the demo, their Wave server crashed. And while the Wave server is down (which inevitably happens to all servers at one point), you can't access your email, and all those blog comment "waves" you posted on your website? Gone.

As things are today, if your email server goes down, at least your website stays online. If your blog software crashes, at least the comments and articles you published stay online. But in the Google Wave world, it appears that if your Wave server goes down, then everything on that Wave Server goes with it temporarily. Emails, websites, internal company documents, they all go offline until the server is fixed. That's a "Single Point Of Failure" - the one thing that, if it fails, takes down everything with it.

They also said that there was always just one copy of a "wave". I assume there are provisions for backing up wave servers, but it isn't something they covered in today's introduction.

Google Wave Encourages Information Overload, Instead Of Solving It

You already have dozens of emails in your inbox. Now imagine every Facebook status update thrown in there as well. Then add every Twitter tweet from everyone you follow as well. Now imagine that even after you've read them, they keep popping back into your inbox because the other person made a small edit. That's Google Wave.

That might be okay if Google Wave gave you a way to deal with it all, and they do provide some tools to stop you drowning in Waves... there are Folders and Tagging options to organize them. But so far, it appears to be something you have to do yourself, by hand.

Compare that with an email client like Eudora 7, that you can setup to automatically sort things for you. It's like a personal assistant who checks your email and tells you which ones are most important. You can create Filters that sort urgent business emails at the top, friends next, and all that anonymous email at the bottom. It can automatically remove the spam and prioritize your email, so you know exactly where to begin with your email each day.

It appears that Google Wave doesn't have that. It even makes it worse, because when you think you've dealt with something, it keeps coming back as others edit it. There was no mention of how Google Wave would handle or prevent spam either.

Google Wave is Hyper-Real-Time

You know that problem you have in MSN Messenger clients, where you're waiting while the screen says "Ethell82F is typing..."?

Yeah, I didn't think it was a "problem" either.

Apparently the Google Wave team does think it's a problem - so they "solved" it by showing everything Ethell82F is typing - as she types it. Typos and all, before she's even finished typing the sentence, let alone the whole message. And they do the same thing with "emails", blog comments... everything. You can watch everything being edited in realtime.

Do you really want to watch 100 trolls all editing their hate comments on TechCrunch, all at once?

I think it's going to be too distracting, watching emails and web pages change as I'm reading them. I'm not convinced that's a benefit yet.

Google Wave is Overly Complicated

Let me quote Lars Rasmussen from today's presentation:

"Imagine you go back and do more work in the original wave, you'll be able to go back and merge just those changes into that same product wave. The product wave will just have a two-step history now, where each step is attributed to whoever did the copy. In fact - and you guys will recognize this as inspired by source control systems - we'll let you have a whole string of work waves, all pointing to the same product wave. You can have different teams working on different parts of the wave, and then when one team merges in their changes to the product wave, the other teams can pull it down, merge it with the local changes and so on."
- Lars Rasmussen, Google Wave Developer Preview at Google I/O 2009

I bet if you say that to any of your non-geek friends, they'll look at you and say "Uhm, but I just wanted to type an email to my friend. How do I do that?" It doesn't have the obvious simplicity of, say, Twitter, or an iPod.

Is Google Fixing Something That Isn't Broken?

There's a whole range of other issues with Google Wave too. I think Dave Collins said it best over on his blog: "Is Google fixing something that isn't broken?".

I wouldn't quite go that far - some of the Google Wave ideas do solve problems. Our modern day inbox is fragmented: there's a Facebook inbox, and a Twitter direct-message inbox, and a MySpace inbox, and an SMS inbox, and that's all in addition to your email inbox. There is no one application you can use to reply to them all in one place. (Though you can at least receive most of those in one place - via email.)

There are already companies working on this problem. Trillian and Adium solved it for instant messaging. EventBox is solving it for social networks, and PostBox is trying to do it for email & social networks. GrandCentral is doing it for email & phones & text messages - and that's another Google project!

There's still work to be done - none of those applications appear to have auto-categorizing and auto-prioritization. But they're closer to the goal of fixing email than Google Wave is.

Google Wave is a neat Wiki/CMS/collaboration platform - but it isn't the email replacement they claim it to be. I'm not sure why they thought a Wiki is the right solution for email. They're asking the right question, but they've got the wrong answer.