Why We Are Cautious About Google’s Wave

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 (s goog) 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 (s msft) 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.