Friday, March 12, 2010

Google Wave - I get it

Collaboration is a remarkable thing. I remember trading hockey cards as a kid - at recess, in the schoolyard, we'd huddle, whip out our collections wrapped in elastic bands, and start shuffling through them, looking to trade multiples of one player for cards we were lacking, so we could say we had every one of the 1978-79 New York Islanders. As one kid started shuffling his doubles, kids would should "got'im, got'im got'im, NEED'im!" and then the bartering would start as that kid shuffled through his for a card the other kid needed. There was jostling, and no adults chaperoning the mayhem, yet, like a stock market trading floor or a fish market, there was order to the chaos, and in that fluid environment, deals were made and folks left the scrum better off than they came into it.

Can a piece of software possibly replicate the dynamic fluid collaborative environment. Google Wave is one more product that is trying to do so.
Do a search for Google Wave and you'll see plenty of feedback - positive and negative - about its usefulness and potential. While there may be good merit in the negative, I think positively of the idea and can immediately see uses for it in my various working endeavours today.

First off, it's of value to appreciate the context in which Wave is being offered. "Email" as we've come to know and love it, was invented some forty years ago which, in our rapid-pace society, is a long time ago. How long ago? Picture what cars looked like back then, or recall that we didn't even have answering machines, let alone voicemail. We're going back to before fax machines. Picture golf clubs, tennis racquets...I think you get the idea. The world has progressed, so at some point even email should undergo some manner of progress.

As such, whether Wave has actually moved things forward or not shouldn't be considered without first appreciating that any attempt to make email work better is a legitimate exercise.

Now, does Wave succeed in making progress? I think so, but the scope is beyond "just email". Here's a simple example: today we had a meeting with our legal department to discuss a matter. A number of people from our department went to one of the other buildings on campus to meet our legal team. In preparation for this meeting, I was asked to pull together a list of documents and versions of documents to print and take them to this meeting.

Had we done the meeting on Google Wave, we'd have needed no printed paper, saving the cost of paper and toner; we'd have been able to stay in our office, and not incur the cost of travel; I wouldn't have had to pull documents that had been emailed back and forth (multiple iterations, I might add, as emails were replied to and forwarded ad nauseum, increasing the amount of server capacity required to store all these email attachments...) right now, today, I can see how our getting together in Wave to discuss the matter could have been done effectively and efficiently.

Will Wave succeed? It's important to understand that the answer to this question is not dependent solely upon the merit in the technology. Marketing history shows that Beta was better than VHS, and McDonald's isn't the highest quality food out success is not always tied to intrinsic value in a good or service.

Should Wave succeed? I think real-time collaborative tools are worth developing until they can work without a whole lot of learning curve involved. I remember doing a video conference back in 1995 with the VP who was across the continent - a webcam was a new thing, and seeing someone talk to you in real time on a computer back then was a big deal. Since 1995, has communications technology replaced travel costs? There's research out there showing that such is in fact the case, and increasingly so as the tools to do video conferencing become easier to use.

And, here's a key issue, wherein Wave injects itself: conferencing - that is, having a group conversation in real time - is one thing, but the interaction (of voice, documents, a chronological history of who said what, images, video, links and references, all of which effectively serve to automate meeting minutes) is a whole next level that goes well beyond a group of people in a room scribbling their own notes on the proceedings and leaving the meeting saying "can you forward me that attachment we discussed?"

At the end of the day, there are limitations to the linear nature of email. Google Wave imagines another environment that is collaborative, non-linear hence dynamic and fluid, and open for various media to co-mingle along with a conversation. Competition in this space is not a bad idea, so if Wave isn't getting it just quite right, hopefully someone out there is fixin' to go ahead and do it better.

And yes, there are companies who have made product offerings which attempted to develop this idea. Is there one that rises to the top every time as the shining example of the standard that Wave is attempting to meet or exceed? I can't think of one. Today's typical social networking sites currently are likely to be banned from use on work machines (we can't get onto Facebook at work, for example). Lotus Sametime? Yeah, right. I've been in several large corporations who made me use Lotus Notes for email and none of them leveraged their commitment to Lotus Notes to implement the use of Sametime. Chances are, if its interface is anything like Notes, it'd be just another nightmare.

Google does have a leg up, though. From Google Docs to Google Search to all the other components of Planet Google, the consistence in technological platform should translate to a more seamless interface with various pieces of a Wave conversation, which should go a long way towards a tool that is as natural and intuitive to use as having a group conversation. Perhaps Google hasn't nailed it down perfectly, just yet. However, unlike other software, aren't you glad that Wave doesn't cost you anything to find out it doesn't work? Ultimately, Google has as good a chance as any company to come up with something workable.

It only took an 8 year old kid a scrum or two before he was trading hockey cards like a pro. Intuitive, natural. If a piece of software is on approach to translating that dynamic, I'm all for it.