[Review] Google Wave – Does It Deliver As Promised? How To Get The Most From It.

Short answer – Kind Of.

Google Wave is just over a year old now, attempting to answer the question ‘What if E-mail were invented today?’. Their take is that e-mail, with it’s CC’s, multiple copies of files, lack of live collaboration was clunky and limited. So they came up with Google Wave, a non-centralised and real-time method of communication between people. The most common question people ask when first looking at wave is, ‘What is this?’, shortly followed by ‘This is way too messy! What’s happening?’. It’s important to understand what the purpose behind Wave is to answer these questions. It’s also important to understand that Wave is open-source and federated, meaning any company can run Wave on it’s own servers, either privately or publicly, just like an e-mail system.

After some time spent in Wave, I can say for sure that this will NOT be replacing e-mail anytime soon, it’s still in it’s infancy and still needs a lot of work. However there are quite a few things it does do substantially better than e-mail does which people can leverage to their advantage right now. This article will attempt to summarise my thoughts on the pros, the cons and what I found to be the best tips to customise Wave to suit you the best (keeping in mind that Google by and large are engineers, so user interface and ease of use is not generally high on the priority list). I would also highly recommend reading the excellent Complete Wave Guide by Gina Trapani and Adam Pash, a very concise and easy to understand explanation of the main functions of Wave.

Most importantly, note that Wave is not a fully fledged product right now, and it’s a drastic jump from one of the most common ways we use on a daily basis to communicate with each other, e-mail. E-mail works, but there are drawbacks, which many people have been trying to overcome for a while. I would strongly suggestion to approach Wave with an open mind with the intention of more efficient communication, and you will begin to see the benefits of such a system. Many people take one look at wave and write it off immediately, without first examining the features to form an informed opinion, or constructive criticism. With a bit of patience and practice, this tool can be harnessed to benefit you the most.

WHAT DOES IT DO WELL?

Collaboration – Wave’s structure allows participants to all work on an idea or discussion at the same time. If you’ve used Google Docs with other people before, you will know how many cursors on the same screen work. It can be confusing at first, but not having to open/edit/save/send a piece of work back and forth is a huge time saver and is alot more efficient. The ability to actually see participants type or their status at the moment is excellent: you can begin to read their sentence before they even finish, big time saver! If there is a graph or table or to-do list in the Wave, it can be constantly edited and updated, see Gadgets. Another usage scenario is a public discussion on a particular site or topic, if allowed, people can jump in, raise points and discussions can result on those specific points without causing chaos. This is something that e-mail will never be able to do.

Separate Topics – If you are in a group e-mail and there’s a discussion of various topics going on, or several sub-topics, it can get really messy, really quickly. I’ve noticed over time, that in situations like this, people avoid becoming engaged in topics which are likely to cause a large amount of discussion, as it gets cluttered. The way Wave works is by keeping topics separate, not prioritising chronology over the topic, which helps in keeping discussions distinctly separate. Think of it as instead of a bunch of houses instead of all having to use a single driveway, they each have their own driveway to the road. It improves on ‘forum’ style discussions, where the topic is linear, so think of it more like Facebook style discussions, where anybody can comment on a specific topic and all related comments get kept to that topic. What does this mean in real life terms? If you don’t check e-mail for a while, you’ll come back to a mish-mash of discussion. With Wave, it’s sorted out in an easy to understand topic-by-topic format. The fear of being buried completely is addressed.

Conversations and Flow – As it’s very easy to press enter and start typing, without the hassle of worrying about CC’s, quoted blocks of text and so on, it encourages constant contribution and flow to the discussion. People can add tidbits in specific response to words or topics and it’s in perfect context. The finality of e-mail is not present. You can also start private conversations with individuals during the main Wave, if you have a separate topic you want to discuss with them, without having to worry about Subject lines, CC’s and so on. If you don’t want to read about a particular topic that some people are having a discussion about, just skip right past.

Discussion History – With e-mail, if halfway along you add somebody into a decent-length discussion, chances are they will have trouble catching up with what’s happening. The reason is, e-mail by nature is a big chunk of text that is constantly duplicated and forwarded around, with each person making their own amendments and sending the chunk back. Some clients will quote just the last reply, some will quote the whole lot and it’s generally ordered strictly chronologically. With Wave’s, the discussion is centralised, what you’re controlling is each individual’s access to the discussion. Once somebody has access, they can read through from the beginning (thanks to the powerful Replay feature), or see the discussion based on topic.

Gadgets – One of the key things which needed addressing in e-mail is a variety of rich and interactive content. In e-mails, the universal standard is plain text, sometimes HTML if you’re lucky. Any sort of fancy javascript, flash or embedded content is a lottery ticket as to whether the other person will be about to see it as it was intended. But with the modular Gadget/Extension system, you can add functionality into the Wave. Examples being embedding webpages in there, voting systems, polls, constantly updated graphs, Youtube videos and much more.

Bots– Mostly a novelty feature from the ones I’ve seen, but the idea of a Bot is a computer-controlled participant in the Wave. The most useful functions they may have are things like dictionary (where any wave participant can type define:word and the bot will recognise this string and shoot out a dictionary definition), wikipedia (same as above), or maintenance (cleans up blank ‘blips’ or simple typing errors).

WHAT NEEDS WORK?

Participant Post-Only – At the moment, there’s two states for participants. Either full access (where they can post new text and edit anybody’s text) or read-only. There are plans to implement a post-only mode, where they can post new text, but cannot edit other people’s text, which is important because being able to edit somebody’s text may cause further confusion if you’re dealing with people you don’t know. This is somewhat negated by deleted text being highlighted with a strikethrough, but there still needs to be a more elegant solution.

Performance – As you might expect, such a Javascript intensive and feature-filled system takes its toll on system resources. I found performance to be occasionally lacking, especially when there were alot of media objects or gadgets embedded on a page. It’s still a big improvement over when Wave was first released last year, but this definitely needs work if Wave is to find mainstream adoption. Also, those using Firefox will suffer as it’s JS performance lags behind Chrome. This is one of the biggest drawbacks with Wave, it’s not snappy (unless you have a smallish text-only Wave). One of the suggestions I’ve heard is an option to disable the live-update showing letter-by-letter typing, instead reducing that to word-by-word or entry-by-entry, to increase performance of the system. No doubt performance will be improved further in the future.

Search and Favorites – An in-wave search box would greatly assist in finding terms and discussions in large waves, but the use of topic headings and browser-based search helps in situations like this. Alternatively, starring specific text boxes is a good idea, as GMail has implemented.

Mobile Access – Even though Wave technically opens on mobile Safari (iPhone OS) and mobile Chrome (Android), performance is seriously lacking and a few key features like inline replies are not available. A native application which parses Wave information to deliver it in a phone friendly format (think Tapatalk) without the performance hit would be a boon and a big step towards a more widespread use of Wave.

Space efficiency – For Wave to be successful, it has to be clean, elegant and efficient on space, like Gmail. At the moment with chunky borders and lack of collapsible elements (like participant list), it’s clumsy. With luck, these things will be able to be tweaked later on to save space (especially for those who use Wave on a laptop or non-fullscreen. With the main purpose of wave being collaboration and a large proportion of that being work-based/productivity, a slimmed down ‘lite’ or text version would be infinitely useful.

Integration with Google Services– An easy way to move discussions between e-mail / wave, or embed Google Calendar information would also be useful.

TIPS AND TRICKS

Keyboard Shortcuts – A huge time saver, keyboard shortcuts are a must-know for Wave. Mouse responsiveness is slow to say the least, so have a look at the keyboard shortcuts and use the main ones at least. Your editing and responding time will be cut down dramatically.

Learn the different types of Replies – Bear with me here, because this will save you lots of clutter later. There are three different types of replies, think of it like a directory structure. The main responses to the Wave appear off the root directory. You can then have indented replies to these, which increases readability. On top of that, you can have in-line replies, which appear INSIDE somebody’s text box. These can be created by selecting somebody’s text and pressing CTRL-Enter. These by far are the most useful type of replies because they allow for specific responses aimed at a person to a phrase they’ve typed, plus they are collapsible through a speech bubble that pops up. Learn to use these and your Wave will be much easier to read.

E-mail notifications – If you don’t have your Wave window open all the time, you can have summarised updates sent to your e-mail address. Click the drop down arrow next to ‘inbox’ on the navigation bar and select notifications to set the frequency. Good if you want to keep up with Waves on the go.

Use ChromeChrome has been tested to be the browser with the best Javascript performance. This pays off in sites like Wave. If you don’t want to migrate to Chrome, you can always just use it just for Javascript heavy sites like this (see Chrome Application Shortcuts).

Apply common sense to Wave replies – The more seasoned users of Wave will eventually  figure out a way to keep Waves neat and tidy. Usage of inline replies and sensible commentary will help to reduce clutter and confusion. Start new Waves where appropriate.

Explore the Gadgets – Sometimes text itself isn’t enough, but luckily there is a gallery of add-on extensions which can help. Select Extensions on the left navigation bar and choose the ones you want. Then the next time you’re editing a wavelet (which is the official name for a text box), you will see additional buttons in the editing bar above. Useful time savers include the YES/NO/MAYBE poll, or the Google Maps addon, very useful stuff which isn’t present in e-mail. You can even use the IFRAME addon to embed an entire webpage in the wavelet. Also keep in mind that any Google Gadget (as seen on iGoogle or Gmail), can be used in Wave, just hit the ‘insert new Gadget’ button and paste the XML URL.

Embed Youtube Videos – There are two kinds of Youtube video URLS. There are (www.youtube.com/v/) and (www.youtube.com/watch?). Only the second type can be embedded, but fortunately these are the most common. Just cut and paste the URL link into the Wave and a light bulb will appear next to it. Click the light bulb and the video embeds, the end. If you run across a /v/ type video, right click on it and click ‘Watch in Youtube’, this will then convert to the /watch? type of URL. I’m sure they will fix it one day.

Use Browser Extensions – There are two I’d recommend (if you’re using Chrome). The first one, Notifier for Google Wave, will show a button on the Toolbar, which checks periodically (customisable) for new waves and displays a number to indicate how many unread waves you have. It can also show a summary of the text, with a click taking you to the Wave itself. Desktop notifications are also supported. The second is an aesthetic tweak, called Blip Info to Right, which adjusts the layout of Wave to show the person’s avatar on the right instead of the left and removing some extraneous information. The result is a cleaner and easier to read Wave.

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