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Is It Surf’s Up for Google Wave? Or Are Conditions Glassy?

By Brian Prentice | June 01, 2009 | 4 Comments

Cool Ideas & Those That Have Them

I have surfed twice in my life.

Actually, calling what I did “surfing” is generous. It could more accurately be described as a rapid transition from lying prone on a piece of polyurethane foam to swimming in the Pacific Ocean.

Even with this minimal, and quite unimpressive experience, there’s an immediate lesson you learn about surfing. It requires the combined ability to read the conditions with a mastery of timing. First you have to be positioned correctly for the break. Then you have to set out at the right time. Fall behind and you miss the wave. Get too far out front and you’ll be dumped.

If you see an analogy approaching you’re right.

I am personally of the view that with Wave, Google is paddling furiously for a break that isn’t there. Sure, there’s a swell developing – but it’s still a couple miles offshore.

Why am I so hesitant? It’s not for lack of respect for the vision and engineering achievement of the Google Wave team. Instead, it’s based on personal experience.

Back in the mid-90’s I was a regional product manager for Novell GroupWise. 15 years ago GroupWise was a pretty cutting edge application outside of the mainframe world. But while we were pushing the concept of a universal inbox it became rapidly apparent that people were not using the integrated time management capabilities.

What electronic calendar power users quickly realized in 1995 was that the feature was useless unless everyone else used it too. Without near universal participation, busy searches yielded false availability results. Even with a clear solution to a problem that bothered everyone we still ended up calling around on the phone so that everyone invited to a meeting could check their paper diary.

The electronic calendaring phenomena is something I looked at in some detail in a research report I wrote titled “Corporate Social Systems: The History of Electronic Calendars Offers Key Adoptions Insights” (a Gartner subscription is required). One of the findings was that it took 5-7 years after the widespread availability of electronic calendars for it to become broadly adopted. It was only through the confluence of a number of external factors that electronic calendars transitioned from being an unused feature in an email program to being a mandated corporate social courtesy.

I can see with Google Wave a number of such electronic calendar scenarios. At a minimum, people will need to grok onto the concept of threaded interactions in a single, multi-dimensional environment rather than specific collaboration patterns each being represented as it’s own discrete application. In the real world, outside of conferences attended by software engineers, people don’t just change the way they interact with one another because I think there’s a cooler way of doing something. Like the electronic calendaring situation a decade and a half ago, just because I can see how I can apply Google Wave to my collaborative requirements doesn’t mean I can get other people to buy into the same approach.

The inertia of the status quo is a very real impediment to Wave’s success. It reminds me of a meeting I had a couple of years ago with the CIO of a law firm who spent an hour elaborating on their highly successful document management implementation. When two of the firm’s partners showed up they made it clear that they avoided the document management system at all costs choosing instead to send files around as email attachments. While the IT guy could grasp the concept and value of centralized document storage with check-in, and check-out capabilities the actual users saw the sharing of documents of being a simple matter of distribution. That job, as they saw it, worked best in email.

Nor is it just the new collaboration paradigm that Google Wave represents. Working within the environment will require a whole new set of social norms, the lack of which can create frustration that will drive users right back to the tools they’re already comfortable with. For example, concurrent editing is very sexy but it seems to me this can become an unwieldy free-for-all without an agreement by everyone to abide by some type of sequential contribution rule. Playback? I love it. But will some content additions in wavelet’s require commenting in order for there to be a meaningful context for playback? Is there the potential for Wave proliferation to the point where it creates digital clutter? All of these, and many more, will need to be resolved, agreed upon and broadly propagated.

There’s one other comparison with electronic calendars that I think is critical here. There is a lot of talk about Google’s ability to permeate the enterprise through the user. But it doesn’t always work in that direction.

How many of us actually carry around a paper-based diary any more? More to the point, how many of us in knowledge work type of roles can unilaterally avoid maintaining our calendar electronically? Not many I’m guessing. But while the electronic calendar has largely become a mandated corporate courtesy it has not become a mandated personal courtesy. With all the buzz around social software like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter we can often forget that some types of collaboration tools are mostly of value in a work setting.

If that’s the case then Google has some additional hurdles they’ll need to jump based on their current ability to execute in the enterprise market. This is a point my colleague Tom Austin makes in his observation of Wave.

Let me finish on an observation that Google’s own Lars Rasmussen made. He pointed out that email, an application built on the paradigm of traditional mail, actually emerged over 40 years ago. What that means is that it took roughly 30 years before email was broadly embraced. While I am greatly impressed with what the Google team has put together I think we all need to entertain the very real possibility that it could be another couple of decades before the impact of what they’re proposing will be realized.

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  • Steve Reeves says:


    I’m absolutely sure you’re right about Wave getting any sort of traction in the enterprise world.

    Is it likely to be interesting in the social world (or social media) to be more precise?

    Email did take forty years – led by the corporate world – but Facebook and Twitter only took two years – led by the social world.


  • Phil Kulak says:

    Well, email became popular 30 years after it was invented because that’s when the internet became popular, not because the whole world was surfing around the internet for 30 years before email caught on. In fact, most people would agree that email was the first part of the internet that really caught on and that it dragged everything else along with it.

    And calendaring breaks down completely if you don’t have total participation. I can use Wave with my coworkers and wife as long as they understand it. And then as soon as my mom figures out at least how to reply, I can use it with her too. And then when someone else figures it out, they’re in too. And if this was an embedded Wave, _we_ could be using it. Wave could be very incremental, not like calendaring at all.

  • Brian Prentice says:

    Steve – I think you’re hitting the key point. Will Wave appeal to a form of collaboration that can rapidly incubate in the social world.

    I have my doubts. Even though the demos showed a lot of social scenarios (let’s go shopping) I think the real power of Wave is when it’s applied to collaborative work processes. That type of collaboration will take much longer to permeate.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not questioning the sheer brilliance of Wave. Heck, I rushed to put my name down as a beta tester. But I think Wave is going to take a long time to create a “new normal” in digital collaboration for the simple fact that it’s so disruptive.

  • Brian Prentice says:

    Phil – keep in mind that the internet was also around for quite some time before the big uptake in email.

    But I think we’re in general agreement. You’re right to say that you can “…use Wave with my coworkers and wife as long as they understand it.” All I’m arguing is that it is going to take a lot longer for that broad understanding to manifest itself than many of us tech-savvy people might care to admit.