Google Wave: It's innovative, but is it truly useful?

Google Wave: It's innovative, but is it truly useful?

Currently in a controlled beta that everyone wants to try out, Google Wave has enormous potential -- and serious limitations


Public or private?

Your waves can be public or private. Only people you've invited to a private wave can view it or participate in it, but anyone can view or participate in a public wave.

You need to be extremely careful about what waves you make public. And during beta testing, I found a serious security hole - one of my private waves was turned into a public wave without my knowledge. I had added the Bloggy gadget to a wave, but because the gadget didn't ask for any log-in or blog information, I assumed that the wave was not published as a blog. It wasn't -- but the gadget made the wave public without telling me. I only learned that the wave had been made public when someone I didn't know joined it and warned me that the wave had gone public.

Clearly, this is something that needs to be fixed. If gadgets or robots can make a private wave public without your knowledge, Google Wave will be one of the biggest security holes ever devised.

So why would you use it?

How useful will Google Wave really be at work? Imagine, for example, that a geographically dispersed group in an organization needs to decide when and in what area of what city to meet.

The group starts a wave discussing the meeting time, place and agenda. A gadget links to a group calendaring application so that the members of the group can view one another's schedules and find potential times to meet. People make a variety of suggestions and use a polling application to take a vote deciding on the time of the meeting.

Next, people make suggestions for places to meet and include annotated Google maps for each suggestion. The members review one another's suggested locations, and the polling gadget lets everyone vote on where to meet. In the end, the group can make a decision in a matter of minutes; if the discussion had taken place via e-mail, it could have lasted for days.

What's missing

The biggest drawback to using Google Wave in its current preview version isn't what's there, but rather what's not there -- direct communication to the outside world. For a service built for communication, it's surprising how much of an island Google Wave is -- it doesn't even integrate with Gmail, much less other mail clients and services. There also are no links to social networking sites or instant messaging tools -- not even Google Talk.

For example, your list of contacts in Google Wave is entirely separate from your list of contacts in Gmail. Worse yet, when you click Manage Contacts in Google Wave, you don't even get to manage your Google Wave contacts. Instead, you get sent to Google Contacts, a list of your Gmail contacts, which doesn't include your Google Wave contacts. Eventually, Google will hopefully integrate Google Wave with Google Contacts. But given that Google Contacts is in beta and Google Wave is in preview, it's not at all clear when or if that will happen.

In other words, to be truly useful, Google Wave needs better integration with other services. For example, you should be able to start a wave directly from Gmail with other Gmail users who also use Google Wave. You should also be able to see your Gmail contacts from within Google Wave and send them an e-mail message using Gmail. And you should be able to start Google waves with your contacts on social networking sites. None of these things are currently possible.

The bottom line

There's no doubt that Google Wave is an innovative tool for real-time group communication. Spend a little time with it, and you'll most likely begin to want to use it. But it doesn't solve the biggest problem with Internet communications - their fractured nature.

People use a variety of e-mail systems, a range of social networking sites, different chat clients ... the list is a long one. There are too many ways to communicate, and no way to integrate them all. In fact, Google Wave makes the problem worse because it's adding yet another way for people to communicate without integrating other services.

Some observers believe that Google's eventual goal is to have Wave replace all those services. But no matter how grand Google's ambitions may be, hundreds of millions of people around the world are not going to desert the way they communicate. Abandoning their current e-mail and social networking tools would be far too disruptive to their work and personal lives. What's more, Google Wave doesn't have the kind of social networking features that are built into sites like Facebook, and it's not designed to replace them. At this point, Wave is only an adjunct to those services, best suited for very specific projects that require live (or close to live) collaboration.

If Google figures out a way to integrate Google Wave with e-mail and social networking services, Wave could become a very powerful business tool. For now, though, the integration isn't there. So if you do ride this version of the Google Wave a few times, it will probably be just for fun. In a world already overrun with online services vying for your attention, it's not clear that Google Wave will ever become a critical part of your Internet-based communications.

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