Wave bye-bye to Google Wave

August 6, 2010

Google announced this week that  it  is phasing out Google Wave,  the web-based collaboration tool that the company unveiled to great acclaim a little less than a year ago.   According to Google, “Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked.”   This is a disappointment to those of us who thought that Wave was a potentially useful way for people in different places to work together online–  but, in truth, the service still needed tweaking: it was not easy for many people to learn and its uses were difficult to explain to collaborators.  However,  Google  will likely use what it learned from the Wave experiment  in future products, and  some of Wave’s best features –such as drag-and-drop content addition  and the ability to see collaborator’s document edits in real time– are already appearing in Gmail and Google docs and will likely be much more widely available in next-generation browsers.  I suspect my own Wave story is pretty typical, one example that explains why the Wave wave never crested. . .

Last summer, Google Wave was being touted as “what email would be if it were invented today”.  Though it was not exactly clear what that might mean, I,  like many people,  was looking for a good way to plan and carry out  projects with far-flung colleagues.  The tool most people use for this –multiple streams of  emails– is far from ideal:  When more than one or two people are involved, it quickly becomes difficult to keep track of  each person’s contributions or edits,  and  when  “side conversations” on sub-topics begin,  it’s often hard for participants  to remember to circulate their conclusions to the whole group.  Document sharing tools — like Google docs– solve some, but far from all, of  these problems  and discussion boards and groups aren’t  quite right for the purpose either– while they permit “threaded” conversations and subconversations, they don’t, for example, make it easy to post drafts for group editing.

The first reports on Wave hinted that it could do all that– and more. So I became one of the thousands and thousands of  regular folks who eagerly sought, and eventually got,  early “invitations” to try out Wave (the service had, like many tech products, already been tested by a limited number of developers– that is, uber-geeks).  Within a few months, though, virtually anyone who asked could get a Wave account, and in May of this year, Wave was  opened to everyone with a Google account.

Until that happened, one of the biggest problems with Wave was that you could only “Wave” with others who had gone through the somewhat complex process of setting up their own Wave account.  And –as with any new software tool– users had to invest some time in exploring Wave before they could use it easily and productively.

Over the course of the year, I managed to pull together several small groups to experiment with Wave. What we found was that, although one of Wave’s best features was supposed to be that it permitted “real-time” collaboration (that is, everybody participating in a “Wave” could  see what everybody else was typing or adding to the “Wave” as they did it), in practice, this wasn’t much of an advantage.  Once we took the time to get everyone together at the same time to “Wave”, it seemed rather pointless to type at each other –we scheduled a conference call at the same time, using the Wave primarily as a visual aid and discussion record.

Wave seemed to work best for facilitating project discussions over time– each person could post comments or additions to the Wave on his or her own schedule and, in fact, it was somewhat easier to follow a revision or decision-making process than on email. The downside, though, was that, initially,  Wave didn’t notify participants by email when another group member made changes or updates so it was hard to keep “Waves” rolling–  no one ever got in the habit of checking their “Wave” account as routinely as email or even Facebook.

And no one ever became enthusiastic enough about Wave to  use it regularly or as the main collaboration tool for carrying  out a full-fledged project. Last spring I was facilitating a group’s planning for a new online publication.  The five people involved live in different parts of North America,  and so,  when email discussions about the publication had diverged into hard-to-follow email “threads” about proposed content,  type fonts, graphics and color schemes,  I suggested that we move the discussion over to Wave.  All the partipants had Wave accounts and had participated in our earlier Wave experiments— but that suggestion damped down the discussion and almost killed it instead of  moving it forward.  Since it had been several months since any of the participants had actively used Wave, no one could remember exactly what to do– or even how to log in.

As I mentioned, I think that’s probably a fairly typical Wave experience outside hard-core tech circles. So while I’m a bit sad to wave bye-bye to Wave, I’m hardly heartbroken–  and I’m hoping that what Google learned from the Wave experiment will, in fact, resurface in other products.

Did you try Wave?  What was your experience?  What substitutes do you suggest?

Filed under: Google services

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