Google Wave is ostensibly supposed to be what email would look like if it were invented today. Personally, I’m finding out that to be quite the case. Case in point: A few days ago I got an email from another student wanting some information on one of my previous summer projects. I promptly forgot all about it until last evening when my professor (who had supervised the project) emailed me and one of my collaborators and politely told us to reply to the original email. I went back to the original email, replied and CC’d my professor. While I was doing this I was thinking about how much simpler it would be if we were all on Wave.
Let’s look at all the different communications that took place as this happened:
- The new student emailed me and my collaborator separately asking if we would get him up to speed. He may also have emailed my professor separately. That’s 2, maybe 3 emails that went out.
- Both me and my collaborator neglected to reply, causing my professor to send out one more email (the same one to both of us).
- I replied to the original email and CC’d it to my professor. He now has one more email.
In the end, we each have between 2 and 4 emails in our inboxes, in at least two separate threads. Gmail with its conversation view makes things a bit cleaner to handle, but Wave would make it easier still. Plus there is the human element. I didn’t CC my collaborator on the reply to the original email and probably won’t know what arrangements he makes with the new student. The student might end up meeting separately with both of us when it would make sense to meet all together.
In Wave, the new student would create a new Wave and add himself, my professor, my collaborator and me to it. We would then forget about it until my professor replied on the Wave which floated it back up to the top of the Inbox. I would post my reply and so would my collaborator. We would all have an idea of how we were going to meet and get each other up to speed. There would be no problem of “forgetting to CC”.
I’m not meaning to say that Wave is the solution to all problems. And a lot of the times the problem with new technologies like this is social, not technological. In the previous example, we wouldn’t really have needed Wave if the student had sent out a single email to all of us and my professor had just replied to that to remind us. In that case, Gmail with its conversation view (or any other client with threading) would have been sufficient. On the other hand, Wave would also have failed if there had been multiple waves made or if my professor wasn’t included on the original Wave. But even there Wave would have had a slight advantage because of how easy it is to add another person to an existing Wave – much easier than CC-ing someone on an entire email conversation.
I should say that a lot of the functionality I mentioned above could be handled by any modern wiki software. Instead of using a Wave for the discussion, use a wiki and send people the URL for it. Admittedly, there are some administrative questions (how does hosting and permissions of the wiki work) but the essence is the same: instead of sending packages around, have a wall where everyone posts.
But the similarity in strengths between Wave and modern wikis also highlights what I consider the biggest challenge to Wave’s popularity. When we used wikis for my Software Engineering class, we would have keep all our team information in the wiki (and fairly up to date when got used to it) but whenever anyone made a change, we would send out an email to everyone else asking them to look it over. Wave will be useless if I have to send out an email to people telling them to check their Waves. It will become just one more thing that I have to devote mental bandwidth to instead of focusing on my job. Need I reiterate the fact that this is again a social, not technological problem? Facebook has managed to beat this (at least among my fellow college students). We check Facebook out of habit often enough that we don’t need email reminders telling us to go check Facebook. Twitter also seems to have beaten the social inertia, but I suspect that the brevity of it’s messages changes the game somewhat.
It’s still too early to tell whether Wave will succeed in its professed goal of being what email would be if it were invented today. I like the way it’s going but still not sure if I’m ready to give up email for it any time soon. There are still some organixational issues that need to be solved. In particular long conversations in one Wave can be hard to comprehend especially if there are multiple discussions taking place in the same Wave. It’ll also be interesting to see if other solutions like email or wikis start to learn some lessons from Wave and start incorporating its features. Google Wave has a lot of potential and it’ll be intersting to see how it changes the web and the way we communicate on i.