We’re being cautious about Google’s Wave, and for good reason. It’s not that we don’t believe in the technology. But when something is described as game-changing and the greatest thing since sliced bread, it behooves one to really pause and think about it. And at this point, we have more questions than answers about this product.

About two years ago, I wrote a column for Business 2.0 magazine entitled “Why We Hate E-mail.”

E-mail became the Internet’s first killer app — and therein lies the problem. As software goes, e-mail is almost socialist: From each according to his ability, to each whether or not he needs it. E-mail ought to be reinvented to meet the needs of our always-connected lives…E-mail has become a crutch, a way of passing the buck. Want to make an appointment? That’s 10 messages back and forth. Then there are corporate updates, birthday announcements, forwarded jokes, and (if you’re me) the occasional amorous ditty. Here’s where e-mail’s socialism turns from strength to weakness: It doesn’t matter if the message comes from a spammer hawking Viagra, your wife asking you to pick up some wine, your boss telling the company that Monday is a holiday, or a client asking for a meeting at his office at 11 a.m. In today’s inboxes, all e-mail messages are equal.

Like Fred Wilson, general partner at Union Square Ventures, the tyranny of email had me wistfully wishing for something more. As I went on to note:

In today’s inboxes, all e-mail messages are equal. In reality, of course, some are more equal than others. Spam, alerts, and calendar items all need to be treated separately. A smart inbox would — all in one interface — catch spam in junk filters, display the wine reminder in an IM, move company news to an RSS feed, and intelligently negotiate appointment requests with your calendar in the background.

So yesterday, as I was watching the Google executives present Google Wave at Moscone Center here in San Francisco, I was genuinely excited by the potential of this new application. It was everything I had dreamed of. My immediate thought, which I shared on my Twitter stream, was: Well Microsoft’s SharePoint team had better be worried because Wave is an extensible platform, with a lot of APIs, and as such could soon become a massive headache for Redmond’s fastest-growing business group. But it was clearly more than just that.

Nevertheless, I wanted to withhold any additional judgment until I’d had a chance to spend time with the product (and not look at it on the big screen). I also wanted to attend the press conference to hear more about what the execs had to say. More importantly, I needed time to think about it. In the interim, Jordan did a good job of summing up the pros and cons of Google Wave. We collaborated closely on his post, and I’m glad we’re being cautious. For it’s not that we don’t believe in the technology, but when something is described as game-changing and the greatest thing since sliced bread, it behooves one to pause and think.

It’s easy to arrive at conclusions that lack veracity. Others might be swayed by the winds and be wildly optimistic, but let’s just say that, thanks to my age and nature, I prefer to veer between “optimism” and “cautious optimism” when it comes to the prospect of new, ground-breaking technologies. “Email is the most successful protocol on the planet…we can do better,” is how Lars Rasmussen, one of the creators of the platform, described the ambition of the effort. He described it as a whole new communication system. No doubt about it –- too new.

My biggest question about Google Wave is how the company is going to bring about a behavior change and find viral growth in order for it to become the standard Google wants it to become. The company wants it to be an open protocol so that people can build their own Waves and at the same time collaborate and federate.

No one doubts the audacity of the idea, but for a project that has been a few years in the making, one would surely like to get some specifics. None were forthcoming during the press conference, however. I asked Google executives, among them co-founder Sergey Brin, these questions:

Why do you think the time for it is now? How do you think you can make it replace email? How long do you think it will take?

“Google Maps was on the edge of browser capability and the Wave is pushing the browser capability further and further,” Brin replied, pointing to the emergence of client (browser) technologies and the increasingly changing nature of communications. But the rest of my questions were brushed aside, mostly because they asked for specifics.

A day later, when thinking about Wave, I am reminded of one of my favorite television shows, “My Boys.” In a recent episode, one of the characters on the show, Mike, claimed that he could strike out a big-league hitter. He was still pitching as the episode ended.

Google’s claim of replacing email sounded much like Mike’s boast. The reality of doing it would be much harder than making the claim. Don’t get me wrong – I want Google Wave to succeed. It is, after all, the product of my dreams.

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  1. “My biggest question about Google Wave is how the company is going to bring about a behavior change and find viral growth in order for it to become the standard Google wants it to become.”

    Doesn’t wave = gmail 2.0? Instead of having your IM sidebar and additional labs widgets it’ll all just be in wave format. And from there – anyone you message gets the hotmail-esque “want better email? get gmail” footer.

    1. Second that.

      Moving the gmail userbase to wave should be a breeze – I’ll gladly replace my current browser based communications app (gmail) with something better from the same vendor.
      Many small organizations, not married to MS Exchange and Outlook (like my own) are already using google apps for email, calendar, docs etc. Moving over to Wave makes a lot of sense.

      Admittedly, taking over large enterprises would be more difficult…

  2. Steve Kukla Friday, May 29, 2009

    Assuming mainstream adoption of the eventual Google Wave client, the game change will arrive when developers deploy Wave robots & gadgets that tap into the conversation in realtime and act accordingly. That’s where I’d be innovating.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head. I watched the keynote presentation via YouTube and there is a lot to be excited about with the wave platform. But, the questions of ubiquity, implementation and change management quickly rise to the surface. I hope it succeeds and I can’t wait till it gets stable enough for us “normal” folks to get our hands on it – but, I am in wait and see mode at the moment. If the demo was any indication of the technologies prime time readiness it will be at least another year before it hits the street.

  4. predictabuy Friday, May 29, 2009

    If successful, I think Wave should be much more than an ‘email replacement’. The core premise – shared documents edited in real-time with real-time sharing of updates – is simple and elegant – even obvious in a cloud context.

    I think the essence of the criticism is – it’s very ambitious and as such there’s a reasonable chance it might fail – especially if Google is unable or unwilling to make a long-term commitment to it. But couldn’t this be said about any ambitious project?

    1. No one argues the ambition or audacious nature of the project, but when you are going to take out an “incumbent” and that is what is missing, so we are cautious and not wildly optimistic. if you want to read that as criticism, well I can’t quite argue with that logic.

      1. I think the title in the previous post was rather silly and sensational. And this post seems to be an effort to make up for it. While I think being cautious is fine, its so sad for a blog of this standing to try writing stuff like ‘arrogance with ..’. Cmon!

  5. The Fallout from Google Wave « Wavesmasher Friday, May 29, 2009

    [...] to fall over itself with praise a cautious opinion can count as a negative one. Google Wave is everything Om Malik had dreamed of but … A day later, when thinking about Wave, I am reminded of one of my favorite television [...]

  6. Edwin Khodabakchian Friday, May 29, 2009

    Great post. You are right that the key here will be adoption. I think that in the worst case, Wave will be something like the Concorde: a great technology which will not become mainstream but will whose components will have fundamental impact on the industry going forward – the web is ready to become a federated event bus and wave will accelerate the transition. The other benefit for google is that it is a great case study for Chrome, GWT and Google App Engine: eating their own dog food can only make those technologies better. Finally it is a 2-0 against Microsoft Exchange in term of innovation: Microsoft if going to have to react to block Google and all the time they spend on this front is time that they do not spend on Search. Thanks for this post and have a great week end!

    1. Bing Bing Bing…

      You may have the story backwards.

  7. “Email is the most successful protocol on the planet…we can do better,”


    “Email is the most successful protocol on the planet, and it’s a protocol nobody “owns” so we though it was a good idea to make some changes so we own it and profit off it. Can you think of the data we can harvest… Waves!”

    I hope the way we communicate advances, but i hope Google has NO part in the ownership of such technology.

    1. Bhavishya Kanjhan MaxieB Friday, May 29, 2009

      Watch the video and you’ll understand that the platform is independent. Content resides on the company hosting the Wave server. Google does have NO part in the ownership of the content.

      1. This is where I think Google will take advantage. They will offer free hosting of wave servers since they have the infrastructure to do so. Then they’ll index all the data on their servers instantly. Then they own the web. No one will be able to index data as fast as them because most wave servers will be hosted by them. The realtime web will be owned by them. Bye bye twitter.

  8. Rohit Nallapeta Friday, May 29, 2009

    The email and a stream of thought all encompassed into one, its like having FB,Twitter,gamil,chat and apps meshed into one…it’s more of a social nature. Then with API’s coming in its like one huge dept store of apps etc…guess there is nothing called as privacy, although i agree the idea is simply brilliant!

  9. Om, I don’t think you’ve spent enough time to think through the issues of embeddability, extensibility, federation, etc. Wave is a pretty darn good stab at these. If the open source community embraces it, be hard to see why not, I’m sure it can also help shape Wave’s eventual direction.

    Does Google want analytics of the Wave data? Of course. But that’s the compromise we make. At least Google is trying. Who else is?

    1. Kontra

      I have been thinking about this a lot. I like the idea behind the product and other aspects of it, but it is asking for too much of a behavior change. The question is how…. I don’t see anything that Google described that would force me to do that. It is something I have an issue with, not the technology per-se.

      1. Om,

        When Google initially married email and chat in Gmail, I was not very enthusiastic about it. I preferred to use the separate GTalk client for chatting. At some point, which I am not even aware of, it just became more convenient to simply chat in the same place where I emailed. I hardly ever open the GTalk client now.

        I can see a similar thing happening with Wave. If a single interface marries email, chat, photo sharing, document sharing, so on and so forth, and if it is done right, I think lot of people will end up using it as the default online communication platform. The final product we use may not necessarily be from Google. Somebody else might create a great version of the Wave. But I can easily imagine something like this being very popular within 5 years from now.


      2. Okay, listen. The moment I started to learn about Wave (the hour and 20 or so minute video) I thought that this was something that will change as we communicate. Keep in mind, the immediate advantages are not for the end-user. They are for the developer, no doubt about it. This is some really powerful website/web architecture building materials? Who cares if Google has their name stamped on it if thats what they want? You think they don’t make enough money in AD revenues? They don’t strike me as a particularly greedy company (in today’s capitalism though that isn’t saying much) This development model has potential that I think not even the creators have realized at this point.
        So they original point. This is for developers. Did you not see how much Rasmussen was looking to the audience’s reaction? Sure he was confident, this is a hell of a piece of software, but at the same time he was nervous to an extent. They NEED the developers. This isn’t something that will end with Google creating an amazing service for customers to use. Someone is going to create something game-changing FROM what they have created. Sure it is awesome and will make things much different, but I see it as more of a grand stepping stone. That said I think that such as AJAX has driven dynamic and SUCCESSFULL (key word) websites because of inter-connectivity, responsiveness and fluidity, how could something that takes all of those to the next level not succeed? and furthermore, how successful of a website do you think can be with this kind of creation method?

  10. The Google Wave problem I see is that it seems like a solution targeted to a problem that we experience only about 2% of the time. We’ve spent years, even decades, making fun of the bloatware in Microsoft Word, where no single human ever uses more than 15% of its functionality, and here comes Google’s ambitions to recreate the same for the Internet under the auspices of the newly termed “Page’s Law”.

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