Google Wave has once again hit the headlines as the beta service (no, really, this one is) opens up to 100,000 more users. I toyed with the idea of trying to secure an invite, but soon gave that away as I realised how many other things I have waiting in the wings for some attention. And that’s a key point and why I believe Wave is ahead of its time.
In a nutshell, Wave is a mix of email, instant messaging, collaboration and sharing. Imagine a mash-up of your favourite IM with Flickr, Facebook and your favourite email client. But it’s more than that. Google are opening up Wave so that clever developers the world over can implement things even Google doesn’t dare to imagine. Just look at what happened to the iPhone when Apple made a proper developer’s kit available. They’re now pushing the angle “there’s an app for everything” because there pretty well is now. Sure there’s a lot of rubbish, but some unexpected gems have surfaced too. So I expect it will be with Wave. In time.
As I see it there is one big hurdle confronting Wave. The oft-mentioned ‘mainstream acceptance’ of such a technology. And let’s get this straight – this is a new technology. It might be a combination of all of those things I mentioned above, but it does not draw on any of them to get the job done. It is a closed system. You rush off and get your Wave invite and… and… and there’s no-one to communicate with.
Email is a mature and accepted standard. Whether you use GMail, Outlook (shudder), Apple Mail or Pine, you can exchange emails with anyone else who has an email account. There are no real barriers to entry and there is much choice of software to accomplish the task. Instant messaging was next and after many years still remains fragmented. I personally have accounts on ICQ, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, Skype and GoogleTalk. But as all these networks are doing essentially the same thing, single client applications have evolved (such as Trillian or Adium) which nearly seamlessly meld your separate networks of friends. I have friends I keep in touch with on all of these networks except AOL. If I want to contact one of them, I just look at my single ‘buddy list’, double-click, and start typing.
Wave is a completely new technology. At least initially, and I suspect for a considerable time, you will either be on Wave or you won’t. There will be no middle ground, no partial access. Similarly your friends will either be on or off. The closest analogy I can think of for this is the likes of Facebook versus Bebo versus <insert name here>. Each of those networks has its following which seems to have built along demographic lines. But those networks are mature. Each has won a large demographic with a hard and long fought battle.
To put this in perspective, Facebook is approaching six years of age and yet my own circle of friends on the service is still relatively small. I only started using it in the last year or so and some of my friends joined after I did. It is a slow process.
I’ve rambled on a bit about this point of mainstream adoption. Now I must return to my original statement. If you remember, above I said I don’t have enough time. In what may at first appear to be a contradictory statement, I believe the real-time nature of Google Wave will slow it’s adoption because people don’t have enough time in their day.
I was reading a BBC News dot.life article about Wave and reading through the comments. Many of the comments are predictable and echo some of what I have said above. But one jumped out at me. It says, in part:
Anyone who does business with people remotely will surely agree that the a voice conversation is by far the most effective means for efficient communication, and even more so when followed up by email (or collaborative documents) confirming the salient points and next steps/action points.
I agree with the commenter with one qualification – that this applies with respect to a single conversation. I would be extremely happy in my job if the working day did not contain overlapping conversations. It does, and it sucks. This is where I use real-time and what I call ‘right-time’ communications. Specifically, this is why I use instant messaging every day, and use it a lot.
A phone call addresses only one task. True it could address more than one, but only one at a time. It is an inherently linear process. Even on a conference call, everyone is talking about the same thing at any one time. You also have to take careful notes. The nature of email (and this is really only by convention) is that of a phone call, but it loses the real-time nature of the phone. Instant messaging is the happy medium. It can be used for real-time conversation, and it can be used in parallel by holding multiple conversations simultaneously. Even more usefully, if another party is distracted or detained by another task, the conversation just ‘hangs’ until their return, be it 2 minutes, 15 minutes or even a few hours later. That’s what I call ‘right-time’ communications.
How many times have you called someone and it hasn’t been a great time for them? Or how many times have you gone to call someone and then thought, oh, they might be busy, so not called? A phone call interrupts the recipient. An email goes too far the other way (unless the recipient is one of those people who hang on their inbox’s every arrival) and (by convention) delays the conversation, perhaps unnecessarily. Instant messaging (at least when configured correctly) attracts the attention of the recipient so they may respond when it is convenient. Often, the recipient will see the communication is a simple question with a simple answer and dispatch the query quickly. They may respond with a polite “I’m busy can I get back to you in half an hour?” in which case everyone knows where they stand and can get on with what needs doing.
A couple of use cases may illustrate my point – then I’ll get back to Google Wave.
I was feeling unwell and was at home in bed. But there was something I had been supposed to be doing so I needed to hand it off to someone else and provide them with sufficient information to perform the task. My affliction was a cold and I really didn’t feel like actually talking to anyone. Out came the laptop. I decided to glance at my emails and noticed another couple of burning issues which I knew would fester if I didn’t get someone to pay attention to them. I popped open my instant messaging client (provided by the company for internal use) and began two conversations to colleagues at my office. I was able to describe the tasks to the recipients, send links to important information and answer any questions. While I was doing this, someone else popped up online from an overseas office and asked me a question. I tried to respond but didn’t have all the information I needed. So up popped another message window where I sought the missing information from another colleague. Pretty soon the opportune question aspect became out of my league so I invited the two parties I was speaking with into a conversation together, introduced them to one another and left them to it. All this time I was continuing my handoff of tasks. In the midst of this I had been talking, simultaneously, to 2 people in Wellington, 1 in Auckland, 1 in Vancouver, Canada and 1 in Brighton, England. I logged off after about an hour with more accomplished than I had intended. None of that would have happened, or certainly not within an hour, using any other medium.
The second use case is far simpler. My team was supporting users in all the above-listed cities. For those overseas, an international phone call was something avoided if possible due to costs. One Canadian user had lots of questions and wasn’t afraid to ask them (something I applaud). His preferred choice was using instant messaging. One day he coyly asked if I minded him asking the questions over IM instead of the ‘proper’ channel of email. I explained my policy to him. If it’s just a question, fire away. But I reserve the right to fob you off to email if I’m particularly busy, or even to ignore you completely if it gets insane around here. If you want me to actually do something, then use email so we have an audit trail. He quickly understood and he got a lot of questions answered for minimal effort on either of our parts. It was as efficient as sitting next to each other.
So what the hell have I been rambling about and what does it have to with slow Google Wave adoption?
Simple. It’s this. The two use cases above happened over 6 years ago. Whilst I have changed jobs twice since then, the landscape has barely changed in terms of IM adoption within the enterprise. Which is to say a lot of people don’t see the value in it and don’t use it. Ironically they see it as an interruptive tool, even though many will still use the telephone. Most rely on email, however. And that is why my inbox looks like the trash dump it is. Instant messaging is a great technology with massive benefits but a lot of people still don’t ‘get it’.
So, if people – in the IT industry, no less – are not yet ready to adopt plain old instant messaging, what hope does Wave have? That’s a business view, but there’s a similar story to be told in the real world too. Of my immediate family (parents, siblings, spouse and children) I am the only one to regularly use instant messaging despite every single one of them having their own computer. Some will end up using email almost in real time whilst simultaneously not seeing the point of IM. It’s an uphill battle.
If we are to really analyse the tech landscape for mainstream use, I think it is only safe to say that email is ‘almost there’ in terms of adoption by the masses. Everything else is up-and-coming.