Underwhelmed by Wave: Google’s Wave Falls Short

After chomping at the bit to get a Google Wave invite, the reality leaves a bit to be desired. While Wave has some interesting features and a slightly new take on collaboration, the current implementation has little to offer beyond what you'll already find in tools like EtherPad and Google Docs.

When Google Wave was announced earlier this year, it was met with more than a little excitement. Finally! Something was going to fix email! When Google finally started dishing out invites to Wave, though, the hopes were quickly dashed. Wave may evolve into something fantastic, but the current implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

First off, I’m all about efforts to replace email with something better. I get a massive amount of email, and collaborating with two, three, or ten people via email can get hairy fast. But I’m not sure Wave is the answer.

I received my invite about a week ago, and have been toying with Wave off and on since. The initial experience was disappointing not because of limitations of the software — but by limitations of my Wave-enabled social and professional circle. Basically, I only knew one or two people on Wave, so the actual collaboration possibilities were severely limited.

Early this week, though, several colleagues (including fellow Linux Magazine alum, Jason Perlow) manged to score an invite and we started working on a couple of collaborative documents. The novelty wore off really quickly.

Wave Features

Let’s take a look at Wave’s features. Wave is a collaboration tool where many people can chat and collaborate in real time with rich text, photos, videos, maps, and other goodies. You can add collaborators and play through changes — which is pretty interesting from a revision control standpoint, sort of. It sounds exciting, but there’s very little in Wave that’s not available in things like Google Docs or EtherPad.

In theory, by combining the email, IM, and collaboration metaphors, Wave could be the next big thing in online communication. As implemented, Wave is basically souped-up instant messaging or IRC.

People keep claiming that Wave is “new,” but other than lumping a few features together, I don’t see anything particularly new about Wave. Yes, stepping through changes is a bit more visually interesting than using “track changes” in OpenOffice.org or other office suite, but it’s also less functional.

The distraction level is exceedingly high in Wave. You can see what each person is typing in real time. This means you get to watch all of the typos, in real time. I’m not really keen on having others watch my sentences being put together before I’m ready to hit “send.” I’m even less interested in watching slow typists struggle to put a sentence together in real time.

Wave also needs some stronger access control. As it’s implemented now, if someone adds you and a few other contacts to a Wave, the other users on the Wave can automatically add you to their contact list and start initiating Waves to you. This could be undesirable if you don’t want to start getting Waves from someone you don’t know, but happen to be on a common document with.

Email allows unfettered contact (reply all!) but Google Talk has gotten it right by requiring authorization before allowing IMs. It’s a shame to see Google taking a step backwards with Wave. However, the company may still have this in mind to add before public release.

And what if you want restrict a collaborator to a part of a document, or to give read-only access? There doesn’t seem to be a way to do this in Wave yet.

I can think of scenarios where Wave would be useful, but can’t think of any scenarios where Google Docs, EtherPad, or Gobby wouldn’t be able to do the same thing.

The Jury is Still Out

Bear in mind that the current state of Google Wave is not the final product. For now, Wave fails to live up to the hype. This isn’t surprising, as Wave was seriously over-hyped from the moment it debuted.

Google hit such a home run with GMail (excepting its questionable uptime) and other Web apps that it was easy to think that Google might be the company to untangle the massive hairball that is email and introduce the next big thing in communication.

But, alas, not yet. Wave is an interesting idea, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t picture using Wave in a real work environment as it exists now. But give it a few months, and things might turn around.

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