Riding the Google Wave

Time to put the Wave to the test. Over the past few weeks, Google opened up Wave, its "online tool for real-time communication and collaboration." There's been quite the invite-frenzy with Google using the doorman's trick. You have to be on the list to get in, so you'll have to wait in line; but since you can see there's a huge line, there must be a good reason to want to get in. So you want in, right?

Well, don't feel bad for not being where the cool kids are, since most will "log in and stare at it blankly." What do you actually do with this thing?

To avoid that problem, Jon Marks decided to bring his own group to the Wave last Friday. He added Irina Guseva, Ian Truscott, Justin Cormack, Andrew Liles, Philippe Parker, and myself; "analysts, journalists, vendors, system integrators." Assembled as "The Motley Crew," we set out to "communicate and collaborate real-time" and produce a blog post in exactly one hour, including coming up with a topic and writing the narrative. (We were also supposed to publish this as-is, but like Ian Truscott and Philippe Parker, I prefer the meta-level and write about the writing, rather than letting the Wave roll up.)

There are two interesting sides to this; the social interaction, and the technical workings. First of all, there's the notion of "real-time collaboration" mixed with "real-time communication."

In Wave, as you collaborate, you see what people type as they type it -- the letters appear as they are keyed in, with colored cursors carrying the writers' initials. Lines disappear, then suddenly appear elsewhere (the mystery of telecut and telepaste.) It's a bit unnerving at first, but then again, it's not unlike working on the same document in Writely (now better known as Google Docs); it's just slightly more polished. But honestly, how many people do you know that work on Google Docs simultaneously to produce actual, publishable work?

Then, Wave adds complexity to what Docs does by also, simultaneously, allowing communication, and threaded replies. Which can then be edited by someone else. So it starts off as a simple enough thread (like many comments on blogs); then, suddenly, someone will edit your text and it becomes rather confusing. Who did that? (You'll have to watch the replay to see.) And why? (Is that a question you put in a reply, or edit in the same text?)

As the resulting text describes it, "in the beginning, we were Drowning, not Waving," but by the end, we started getting the hang of it. You can judge for yourself: Irina Guseva published the text verbatim immediately when we finished; and Jon Marks even has the Wave itself embedded.

That embedded Wave brings me to the second part: the technical issues. The Wave we wrote is now public (so you can see it), but that also means anyone (with a Wave account) can still jump in and add or edit. You can't save a Wave; you can't even print it. So what do you do with it once you're done, other than a regular copy/paste?

Clearly, Wave is still in "preview," and that's also apparent in the interface. That is to say, it isn't very feature rich, has some quirks, and some issues. I'm still quite unsure where my reply goes when I click "reply" (in the nested thread, or down below? It's almost random.) But more annoyingly, the assorted browsers were under a lot of stress with everyone hacking away, and most crashed at some point. (Unsurprisingly, Chrome seemed to be the only one doing fine.)

There was some background noise in our collaborative effort on the fact that the Wave protocol certainly supports a lot of the things you could think up to do with it. But right now, we're in desperate need of tools both inside the Wave and outside of it, and they haven't been built yet. There are a few Gadgets (I counted about 8 last week) you can add to your Wave, and even fewer desktop applications (I used Waveboard, but it's Mac-only and doesn't add a lot of functionality.)

And how do you know you're in a Wave if you're not signed in? Jon had to chase us down via Twitter, mail, and IM to get us there. Wave is supposed to supersede all of those, so having e-mail notifications would defy its purpose. Right now, that means you'll have to stay signed in... and stare at it blankly.

So where this leaves us for now is basically the same as when I first wrote about Wave five months ago. We'll have to see whether developers cook up interesting applications, and whether users will actually find effective use for them. If you're not on Wave yet, there's no need to rush. It'll still be there in a couple of months.

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