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Debating the power of Google's Wave

CNET's Rafe Needleman and Stephen Shankland dissect and discuss the search giant's new experimental communication platform.

We've had about a week to absorb the Google's pitch for Wave, its new experimental communication platform, and about a day to try the actual early "sandbox" build of the service. See our hands-on review. But there's more to talk about with Wave. It's not just an app, it's an important evolution in the philosophy of written communication.

People will see Wave in different ways. For some, it's a clever take on e-mail. Others will see it as instant messaging with new features. Developers will look at Wave's open specs and APIs, and see a framework for new collaborative apps. But is it really any of these things, or just a crazy experiment from Google's Australian outpost?

Is it better than e-mail?

CNET Editor Rafe Needleman: In some ways, it really is. With Wave, you don't reply to a message with a new message, you instead add your reply to the message itself. When there are multiple people involved in a conversation, this can prevent a lot of confusion. There's only one "wave" in a conversation, not a volley of messages flying around that repeat each other.

CNET Senior Writer Stephen Shankland: Gmail users accustomed to conversation view, which stacks the back-and-forth discussion into a single view, will have an easier time adjusting to Wave's ways.

And just as Gmail works best if you only deal with one e-mail at a time, Wave is good at only one wave at a time. That's fine for a lot of IM-like chats, but if you work in depth on multiple waves simultaneously, think about opening multiple browser tabs. There are boldface indicators of new activity in your inbox, which tell you who's active, but with multiple tabs you won't always see them--especially if your inbox gets crowded with new waves.

Needleman: It's fun to play with now, but we don't know what using Wave will be like once we start getting overflowing inboxes of waves.

Shankland: Right. Every Net communication technology goes through a honeymoon period where just you and your close contacts use it. Then the whole Net discovers it and your little paradise becomes just another conduit for spam, inane jokes, and trivia. Expect the same issues with Wave.

Needleman: The thing everyone is going to make a big deal of in Wave is that you can interrupt someone who's carefully writing a message to you. You can barge into a message before they're done with it, demand the writer's immediate attention, and force them to shift from composing to replying. There will be a way to hide your real-time activity in Wave, but the default mode is real-time. It's interruptive and very different. There will be people who hate it.

We used Wave to write this story. It worked pretty well. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Shankland: In my misspent youth, I used a Unix terminal command, talk, that was something of a precursor to instant messaging. I quickly grew to loathe the fact that every keystroke was visible. How many times have you had second thoughts about an instant message or e-mail? Think before you type.

Needleaman: I'm in trouble. I don't only think before I type. I think before, during, and after. My mother taught me that "writing is re-writing." I hope Wave doesn't prove her wrong.

So is it better than instant messaging?

Needleman: Again, it's different. In Wave, an e-mail conversation can become like IM, or a multiparty chat room. If there are multiple people in a thread, Wave does a pretty good job of making it clear who's responding to what. One big difference is that you can reply to anything anybody said, anywhere, so you can end up with a big, hairy mess of threads in a single wave. Hopefully the developers will add a way to collapse threads.

Shankland: To me, Wave felt more like an instant-messenger chat room than e-mail. E-mail gives time to pause and reflect, even in today's everything-is-urgent world. Wave imparts a sense of urgency when multiple people are using it simultaneously. With Wave, you feel rude if you don't respond to a question soon, at least when your contacts are actually in the wave at the same time.

As we were writing this document, I found myself wanting to use regular old IM to see if you heard what I was asking about. Maybe that's just a matter of getting used to Wave, but maybe it's because it's is so open-ended it's hard to tell exactly when a response is sought or provided.

Needleman: I did drop into regular IM. The wide-open structure of a Wave message might be a little too open. It's easy to miss things.

Shankland: Such as the question I asked you twice that took you two hours to respond to.

Needleman: I didn't see it. So I agree, Wave needs better notification features.

Shankland: Welcome to the limits of Web apps. HTML 5 has some notification work under way, so perhaps that'll improve in coming years.

How about as a collaborative editor?

Now playing: Watch this: Google Wave

Needleman: Wave is a lot like Google Docs. Several people can work on a document at the same time. Wave actually is more responsive than Docs and does a better job at letting people know who's editing what and where.

Shankland: Google Docs has plenty of weak points, but I find its collaboration feature a more profound and powerful change than any new features in the last few iterations of Microsoft Office. And Google Wave is like Google Docs on steroids when it comes to collaboration. Wave can spotlight the very area where others' attention is focused, which is important data when collaborating, even if you're sitting side by side.

But the what-everybody-else-is-doing visibility factor is also greatly diminished when you can't see where others are working in the limited screen real estate of Wave. The immediacy of the visible edits vanishes as soon as the other work is happening elsewhere. With Wave, there are plenty of trees falling in the forest that you don't hear. For example, in composing this document, I asked a question at the top of the Wave discussion thread. You didn't see it, either because you were away from the discussion or working elsewhere, and there's no notification about which particular part of the discussion changed. A green number next to the wave in the inbox provides some help.

Needleman: That's easy to fix. A little arrow pointing up or down in a document could indicate where others are typing, if they're off your screen.

Wave sounds confusing

Needleman: It is at first, but I found that I acclimated to its concepts pretty quickly. What I really appreciate about Wave is how easy it is to move between different modes. You can start a message like an e-mail, and then see it become a chat or IM conversation, and then go into collaboratively editing a document. I know it sounds horribly confusing but I found that it didn't take long to adapt to it.

Shankland: I acclimated rapidly, too, but I can see how the multi-edit chaos could be distracting even if you know what's going on. If you're the kind of person who can talk on the phone, send a text message, IM, and surf the Web at the same time, you'll be fine with Wave, but most of us have only so much attention span to go around, and Wave has the potential to overtax.

The user interface is also rough. Finding the vanishing button you need to click to edit a wave is a drag, especially when you lose your place in a wave by having to scroll up to the top when it occurs to you that you want to add some text.

Needleman: Lighten up. It's a developer preview.

Shankland: OK, fair point, and I'll withhold some criticisms of search syntax and contacts management that probably will be improved. But I think this issue could be bigger. One problem with Wave is that the servers have to know which waves are open for editing and when. It's easy for Google to shut off a user's editing privileges after a period of inactivity so the server can free up the resources required to keep a communication channel open, but it's a pain for the user to have to re-enable the privilege frequently, as I had to do while working on this piece. My preference would be that the reply/edit button hovers over the top-right corner of the window even as you scroll so it's always available.

Wave as a business platform

Needleman: I think Wave is a great platform for getting work done, but there are dangers. It can take a process that is deliberate and thoughtful and make it into a frothy and superficial back-and-forth. But there are some business process tools that could really benefit from real-time notifications and presence indicators, and from Wave's capability to show people where others' attentions are. I'm thinking of the Bugzillia platform, for example. It'd be great to know when a developer is working on a bug I've filed, so we can skip the e-mail ping-pong and work through problems in real-time.

Also, since Google will open up Wave's code and its APIs, companies that want to bring Wave in-house without putting all that corporate data on the Internet or in Google's servers could set up their own private Wave networks. And if they want, they can layer in any auditing or compliance features that Wave doesn't ship with. Theoretically, anyway.

Shankland: Expect businesses to go through an adjustment period as Wave arrives. There was a day when e-mail was a novelty, and later instant messaging, too, but now they're settling down to be ordinary tools. Arguably Twitter and social networking are headed that direction for some work purposes, too, and I suspect Wave will go through the same growing pains. Just as with other electronic communications, one person's active and engaging chat channel is another person's annoying, productivity-sapping distraction.

What's next for Wave

Needleman: Wave does feel like modern e-mail, and it relies on the modern Internet to work. Unlike old-fashioned e-mail, which was created when servers didn't have persistent connection to each other, Wave works because the machines on the Net are now, for the most part, constantly connected to each other. It also brings together different communication styles--e-mail, IM, chat, collaborative editing--into one app. I think that's great, but I'm not sure how well this idea will scale or what will happen as a broader user base starts to adopt it.

Shankland: Wave feels like some crazy crossbreed of Docs, Gmail, and IM, but I overall I find that refreshing more than troubling. And it's interesting that Google wants Wave to be not merely extensible through a programming interface, but also a brand-new communication protocol for the Internet. Google tries to use openness to advance its agenda, which is tactically intriguing.

Overall, it's a strong entry from a company that understands what the Internet enables, even if Google itself isn't a social network powerhouse. Google must convince people not only to sign up for Wave, but also to get their contacts to do so as well, which probably will be as much of a challenge as making the technology work. But the company is more likely to get ahead in the social realm by doing something different, like Wave, as it did with Gmail, and not by trying to out-Twitter Twitter or out-Facebook Facebook.