Today I got my Google Wave invite and was able to activate my account. There has been a lot of hype about this product (to say the least) so it was interesting to be able to finally have a go at using it, so I thought I would type up my first impressions based on only a few hours use, so treat it as a raw first impression rather than a highly considered opinion! This is a tool that I think has great potential for people collaborating on projects, especially if they are located in different time zones and cannot meet face to face very easily, but to use it effectively though does mean climbing a learning curve.
I must admit (shockingly) that I had not been following the Google Wave story very closely, I hadn't even got round to watching the video, so when I first logged in I was a little lost. It was a feeling not unlike seeing Twitter or an Email client for the first time. This is a tool, and you will have to invest a little time into it to get the best out of it. It is trying to do something new, so they way it works is not entirely familiar. I can imagine this putting off the sort of people who are fond of starting sentences with the words: "most people"; who might get frustrated at not being able to use it instantly. This phase didn't last long though, and it was a great help being on the system at the same time as a few other people I know so we could experiment with it and learn together.
Wave strikes me as what would happen if Email and instant messaging got together and a child. The advantages of synchronous and asynchronous communication are cleverly combined. It has an "inbox" area which shows a number of "waves", these look like they are an email, but in fact they seem more like a conversation. When you click on one you can carry on the conversation, if other people in the "wave" are online at the same time you can do this in real time, like instant messaging. If not everybody can be there at once this isn't a problem because the conversation in text format and recorded, so they can just add to it and people can pick it up later. In this asynchronous mode it functions a little like Twitter maybe, where a delay in responding isn't a problem.
When talking to people in the conversation/wave in real time, you can actually see the text as they type it (including typos that they correct). To be honest I didn't feel that this feature added anything of value to the overall experience, in fact I think it would be off putting as it wouldn't allow people to compose what they want to say in the same way as they can using instant messaging or Twitter. Maybe they have done this to encourage speed of communication, you can't keep going back so you stick with what you have said. Wave seemed a little slow to use as well, so I am wondering if this might be an issue. You can also edit responses, tuning them into mini Wikis, which could be quite useful, as long as it is possible to tell who said what clearly!
No special client is needed for Google Wave, you can just use it in your browser. I tested it out on Ubuntu with Firefox 3.0 and it worked fine. Not needing a client removes what could have been a major barrier to adoption as people and organisations can be reluctant to install new software. It is apparently based on an open protocol, the "Google Wave Federation Protocol" so it will be possible for other organisations to develop products and services, theoretically it would remove the threat of vendor lock in. This might make it more appealing to organisations as traditionally IT departments can be quite poor at preventing lock in.
I think this will be a really useful tool for people collaborating. Up until now it has been difficult to find tools that can handle discussion about the different stands of a project effectively. Collaboration tools are available that have forum type functionality in them, but this is not really useful for the times when you want to rapidly brainstorm or discuss ideas with collaborators. Often people end up using email for this purpose, as everyone knows how to use email and this can result in huge email exchanges with email strands that are difficult to follow, particularly if an email client is used that removes the forwarded sections of emails. It is easy to get crossed wires when using email, when the conversation gets out of sync people can get confused. It is also difficult to manage. Wave would solve this problem, and it would also mean that people can use the same tool for synchronous and asynchronous communication, which would mean the records of discussions would also be in one place. This could speed up projects as it could reduce delays due to communication issues and not knowing what was decided as a result of a conversation.
Hype aside, as this is often no more than a distraction, my first impression is that this potentially is a very useful tool. I am looking forward to the system being opened up so anybody can register on it and use it, then being able to try it out on an actual project with many other people. It is great to see a company think though a communication system like this, and I'm hoping that by basing Wave on an open protocol, we won't just be reliant on one company and this will make Wave a reliable, stable and scalable system. This is something Twitter gets wrong, it is based on a closed system, making it vulnerable to outages and reducing its usefulness. Email is an open protocol, individual email providers may have problems, but you don't get the entire worldwide email system failing. If you get the chance try out Wave and give it a little time so you get used to it. I have a feeling it is going to be worth the effort.
EDIT: Another thought has struck me about Google Wave, the quality that makes it special is the fact that it will be "good enough" for a lot of situations. Sure, there will be tools that can serve particular circumstances in a more effective way, but if people get used to using Wave they might tend to fall back on this, as it will be familiar. This familarity is why email keeps being used at the moment in many circumstances where it is maybe not the best tool.