Google Wave: Real-time trouble and the persistent belief in tools

6/17/2009 | Christian Kreutz

Google presents a new tool and a new hype is born. This time it is about online collaboration and promises nothing less than the end of email. Although the tool has clearly some great innovations, I cannot share the great enthusiasm and again the belief that a tool can change things for better. We are moving from one hype and tool to the next, but still, we do too little to drive the necessary core changes within organizations make it even possible to use tools such as Google Wave.

I have been reading so much euphoria about the new tool, which leads me to write this piece and mention a few enthusiasts, whom blogs I have continuously read and which I always enjoy.

"The Wave is not just another application, it's a whole new way of using online information...  The Wave takes collaboration to a whole new level," says Maish R Nichani. while Martin Koser writes, "Google Wave is poised to reshape (rewires I say) the nature of communication (yes, more face-to-face real-timelineness communication), improving the web experience."

Real-time collaboration - what a nightmare!

Most excited was Lars Rasmussen, the developer of Google Wave, about the real-time collaboration. You can see changes made on a page within seconds. I have heard for the first time that the online collaboration's biggest challenge was real-time changes, but on the contrary, that is the smallest problem. Bringing people to collaborate online is a huge challenge because of trust and the habit of a meeting culture, just to name a few. More importantly, I would argue that the growing speed of the Internet through life streams and tools such as Twitter and Friendfeed is made for a minority. Isn't collaboration a process over hours, days and weeks?

We are witnessing more and more divides on the web

Who can and wants to master all this information every minute. How can you possible still work productively, on top of the ringing telephone and colleagues interrupting you. So, real-time collaboration can be great in a session, but if that is the future of collaboration, then it means that one has to collaborate 24/7. We have to ask us if instant communication really makes us more productive. Typing quickly a message in a smart phone in a go is perhaps not the greatest contribution. I argue that online collaboration, exchange and creativity needs time and breaks. I also doubt that this is a will change with the younger generation.

People, unlike tools, bring change

I wrote many posts about how different tools, such as blogs and RSS, can make a difference for information sharing and lead to more productivity and creativity. No doubt, Google Wave, combines here in an innovative way previous tools.

But all my experiences in online collaboration showed me that when a certain need has to exist. If that is the case even trivial mailing lists or a forum from the post web2.0 times can work dynamically. A fancy tool alone will not convince colleagues to share more information online. The tool can help and support interaction, but does not deliver interaction per se. Google Wave combines in an intelligent way many different streams knowledge worker have to deal with every day. But email is still seen as a core way to communicate and it will take many more years before this will change at large. Will new tools make it easier for that change to happen? I doubt it.

Lee Bryant makes a good point in this regard: "There is an echo chamber of voices confirming each other in the newest tool. "When they switch tools, the previous tools are "dead" and the new tool is "the future". Meanwhile, millions of people continue using Outlook as a primary interface to their work, just as they did a decade ago."

Luckily at least Google Wave is open source, which allows to be runned on an own server. Online collaboration takes a culture shift towards openness and trust to work online. In most organizations that takes a long road – even firms, who are the frontrunners such as IBM, face the same internal struggles, a colleague has recently told me.

A tool for one part of the world

Lars Rasmussen pointed out rightly that email is already forty years old and it is time for something new. But I am not sure that is the way forward because of one other reason: bandwidth!

Jonathan Goshier outlines this point nicely: "Of course, I have to point out that all this real-time communication stuff only matters to the fraction of people on the planet with good bandwidth. Here in Uganda, I’m so glad when an email actually makes it out of the queue that I don’t even bother to think about ‘rewinding’ conversations and dragging and dropping video! In all seriousness, it’s this reduction in basic utility for all users that worries me. Most Google’ products are by-in-large accessible no matter what kind of computer you’re on (except maybe Google Earth). With Wave they seem to be going down a path that might be a little more exclusive in nature. Not a deal-breaker but a concern none-the-less."