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Google Wave: What is it? Why should you care?

Pull up Wave on your screen and it looks like someone junked together a wiki, e-mail, Google Docs, IM, some elements of social networking, Twitter, Google Maps, and a bunch of other crud.
Pull up Wave on your screen and it looks like someone junked together a wiki, e-mail, Google Docs, IM, some elements of social networking, Twitter, Google Maps, and a bunch of other crud. Google Wave
/ Source: contributor

Unless you've been under a rock, one with particularly poor Wi-Fi, you've probably heard at least something about Google's newest newfangled thingamabob, Wave.

If you're lucky, you have a much-sought-after Wave account. The search engine giant recently opened a controlled beta version to 100,000 people, and desperate geeks are willing to pay real money for exclusive invites even if they're not entirely sure what it is they're willing to pay for.

Google describes Wave as an "online communication and collaboration tool." The technorati are calling it either the death or future of e-mail, the tool for collaborative documents (which must irk the Wikipedia crowd no end), a tarted up version of an RSS reader and a slumgullion of other confusing and occasionally contradictory things. Response favors the conclusion that it's a bit of a mess.

The name Google gave Wave is lifted from Joss Whedon's sci-fi show, "Firefly", in which characters sent "waves" instead of e-mails.

The implication of the name, also spelled out explicitly by its creators, is that Wave is what you'd get if someone designed e-mail from the ground up today. I have to say that's ambitious. And there's a lot to be said for the slow evolution of a communication tool.

Of course, tech gurus such as Gina Trapani of Lifehacker fame, and Leo Laporte of This Week in Tech, love it. Others, like this site that squares Wave off against things like lipid solubility or our own existence in a "which is easier to understand?" throwdown, are less impressed.

All the average Joe wants to know, of course, is: Do I have to worry about all this Google Wave stuff or can I go back to poking people on Facebook for a few more months?

So what's Wave like?
Cognitive science professor and author Donald Norman used to give students the Kobayashi Maru of design homework, asking his students to squish a CD player, tape player, clock radio, telephone and answering machine all together in an usable doodad.

The point was to fail, but also learn along the way that too much functionality defies a good interface. Wave's not the worst example of ignoring this principle, but nor does it provide a great metaphor to untangle the problem. Knowing what Wave is trying to be like would help people understand how to use it.

Pull up Wave on your screen and it looks like someone junked together a wiki, e-mail, Google Docs, IM, some elements of social networking, Twitter, Google Maps, and a bunch of other crud. That embarrassment of riches, it turns out, comes with, well, embarrassment.

On the left, you have a navigation tool that frankly doesn't get used much. Below that is the list of your contacts. There aren't a ton of folks with Wave accounts right now, and that's a (temporary) problem.

In the middle you have a list of waves, controlled to some extent by that navigation tool on the left, but also by the search at the top. You can make some waves public, the implications of which have yet to be properly understood. In that sense, it can be kind of like a Wiki.

Finally, on the right hand side you have a wave. It starts off a lot like either an e-mail or a post to a forum. If someone else is looking at the same wave, they can see you writing and editing in real time. You can throw in a map or a widget or whatever.

So what are the problems?
Wave's problems start with the interface. It's not quite a forum, not a wiki, nor really e-mail. But that's sort of symptomatic. The real issue is that it seems like Wave is answering a problem no one has defined yet, at least not clearly. When do you use it? And just as importantly, who's supposed to?

Wave seems to answer the problem of organizing where to go for lunch best. If you've ever tried to pull together a lunch date over e-mail with more than five people, you probably just developed an eye twitch reading this sentence. E-mails bifurcate, people act up, someone's always invited at the last moment, and the overhead for the person doing the organizing is terrible because folk forget to reply-to-all.

The question of audience is an important one too. Coders seem to like it. Laporte and Trapani, mentioned earlier, are both tech geeks and they're psyched! They agree that the extensibility of the platform and the openness of the code give Wave a lot of opportunity to be awesome.

Wave is kind of like Twitter: Without the various sites and software people created for that service, Twitter might never have spread its whale wings and taken off. But it's hard to know if someone will write the killer app in time to save Wave, or if we'll all tire of it first and just go back to the already very serviceable Google Docs and Gmail?

Wave seems to be primarily for business and academic users, people who need a good tool for collaboration. And as that's the case, it has to be admitted that there are already good tools for that. Dropbox and are both pretty sweet if you use them in tandem with email, and they're free, so Wave doesn't really have them beat there. Heck, Google Sites is a pretty good competitor for Wave, so that's nice.

If Google's clever plan to open up the development of Wave pays off, or if they buff the edges off the interface, it could all come together. If not, the fact we don't fundamentally need all that it's offering, at least not under the same roof, could mean it goes the way of Google's Lively (look it up).

Should I buy a Google Wave invite?
In a word, "no."

Wave isn't terrible, but it's not about to set the Internet on fire ... not anytime soon, anyway. Maybe it would if Wave also offered a cat or a box of puppies. Since it's Google, Wave will probably catch alight sooner or later. It's not Wolfram Alpha after all. In any case, you're probably OK if you wait and see. If you're interested, give it a whirl once Wave leaves beta. The more people get on there, the easier it will be to see the full potential.

Oh, and you're going to hear hurtful things about how Google will have more of your supersecret data. I suggest you not bother about them too much. When has e-mail ever been secure? If you're going to talk about a crime you're committing, all your choices for persistent communication tools are bad ones. It's easier to just remember you can't IM a congressional page without repercussions, OK?

Daniel Harrison is less suspicious of the emerging Facebook and Twitter technologies, where you are welcome to tell him he's an idiot for not agreeing with you.