Monday, November 2, 2009

Doing the Wave

I’m sure this isn’t the first blog post about Google Wave with that title, but it helps illustrate the potential ubiquity of the system. Besides the obvious and oft-mentioned nod to Firefly, “wave” itself carries several connotations matching up with its intent. Most electronic communication manifests itself as a wave at some point or another. The act of waving is itself a method of communication. You can ride the wave while surfing the web. But this post isn’t about the name. It’s about aspects of Wave many reviewers seem to have missed entirely.

Have Revolution — Will Wave

Wave will revolutionize communication. There, I said it. I drank the Kool-Aid and placed my bets. This is something I can get behind and evangelize, and I am. In fact, it’s exactly what I’ve been waiting for on so many levels…

But communicating the advantages of Wave to a wider audience than the geek crowd has been challenging at best. Every piece of “mainstream” coverage I’ve seen so far (CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc.), has either completely missed the point or has contained blatant falsehoods. I don’t hold it against them, however. From my point of view, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the tech-savvy reviewers, through whom mainstream media receives their filtered information.

The problem is a fundamental disconnect between the way the two crowds conceive of the changes Wave brings. Most of my geeky friends understood immediately what manner of things you could accomplish with Wave. The possibilities are endless. And there’s the real rub… Rather than trying to explain how Wave will immediately benefit “normal” people, we’ve tried to extol the vast and plentiful virtues of the future of internet communication ZOMG!!!11one.

Gogo Google — Away, that is

Besides the basic failure to demonstrate the benefits of Wave, we have also failed to separate the Google from the Wave. Much fuss has been made about Wave as implemented by the big G. All that fancy AJAX, and “shiny” chrome are simply the bling-bling of Wave world (part of me can’t believe I just wrote that).

If we truly want this to be the next wave in internet communication, we need to direct attention towards the Google-less components of the system: the Wave architecture and the federation protocol.* The saddest part of this story is that the Wave team emphasized this throughout the 1:20 long demo. But “architecture” and “protocol” are about as catchy as a genetic disorder (newb note: you can’t catch those).

The simple fact is that many people will be (and have been) turned off by the very things the media has been emphasizing. Occasionally they remind us that it’s only a developer preview, but first impressions are the most precious. After my few hours toying with Wave today, I can probably name the members of my family who would be turned off immediately.

My greatest AHA! moment during the presentation was when they brought up the Initech Wave client. Wait, what? Did I just suggest a console client will help invite the masses to the party? In a sense, yes. This is where wave really shines. (No, really!) All of the chrome and UI magic is utterly meaningless in the scheme of things.

Imagine if Microsoft had developed Outlook and then opened up the Exchange protocol to standardization. Would we not still have Thunderbirds, and Evolutions, and Eudoras, and pines? Google’s wave interface is nothing more than a single interpretation of what it means to wave (yes, I’m making it a lower-case verb). It’s a damn shame to lose a sizeable audience by scaring them away.

Something of practical value

In a break from my usual rants, I’d like to propose some concrete approaches for people to employ when trying to convince others.

  1. Make more clients! I know it’s a bit early to be making this demand, but we really need to show what else is possible with wave. To get the most bang for our klocs, we should begin by exploring simpler interfaces that put the emphasis on the mechanics of the conversation model.
  2. Re-target your conversations to put emphasis on the mechanics of the conversation model (bah… “mechanics,” “model,” maybe we should start searching for new language too). Extensions? meh. Bots? meh. Being able to follow who said what when? Oooh… (this may even help with marital spats). Eliminating header crap, re-re-re-formatting issues, attachment corruption, forgotten “reply-all”s, and other present-day annoyances? BIG OOOOOHHHH. Spontaneously switching from “I’m writing an e-mail” to “I’m chatting with someone”? Well, maybe that’ll take a bit more effort, but you get the idea.
  3. Remind people explicitly and often that “Google Wave” and “Wave” are not synonymous. What you’re seeing now is essentially the first version Hotmail cum Wave. When you look at how many differences there are between Hotmail and other e-mail clients out there (and even previous versions of Hotmail), it will be much easier to grasp just how nascent this technology is.

With all that out of the way, I’ll follow up at some point with my impressions of Google Wave. :)

* I say they’re Google-less because as open standards they will be under essentially public control.

At about 1:08:00 in the long demo.

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