Google Wave in real life

May 20, 2010 1:20 PM EDT

Google Wave, which has been available for a year by invitation only, opened to the public this week. Will mainstream users adopt it?

I was one of the early users of Wave, and I'm one of the few people who've used it for real-life business collaboration. Even though I found it both enjoyable and productive, I don't see Wave becoming very popular. It's just too hard for normal people to understand.

Here's how I came to use Wave in real life: I work as social media director for Palisade Systems, a small, Iowa company that provides regulatory compliance and network security tools for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Our CEO, Christian Renaud, is an early technology adopter, and when he called everybody in for a three-day all-hands staff meeting at the company headquarters in Des Moines, he announced that we'd be using Google Wave as a backchannel discussion tool during the meeting. There were about 17 of us.

The first hurdle to using Wave for real-life business is explaining what it is. If you haven't spent any time using Wave, it's really hard to understand.

Let's start by comparing Wave to Google Docs. With Docs, you can post a document -- a word-processing file, for example -- and allow other people to collaborate on it.

The usual way businesses collaborate on documents is by swapping them around as e-mail attachments, but that has several limitations. Somebody has to keep track of which is the latest version of the document. If multiple people are collaborating on the same document simultaneously, somebody's got to merge all the changes together, which is time-consuming. The whole process is fraught with error.

With Docs, you have one copy of the document that lives on the Web, and everybody makes their changes to that document, so there's no need to keep track of the latest version. Multiple people can edit the same document simultaneously. They can even do the edits in realtime -- you can get on the phone with a colleague in another state, both have the same document open in front of you, and, as one person makes changes, the other person sees the changes as they happen.

Google Wave does all that and a whole lot more. It also offers threaded discussions, like the comments on this blog. Wave lets you embed apps in a discussion for polling, maps, voice communications, and more.

Wave runs either hosted by Google, or as an open-source server which enterprises can install on their own networks. Wave servers can talk to each other like e-mail servers do, so you can have one Wave that runs on multiple servers across multiple enterprises.

At Palisade, we used Wave during our all-hands meeting for a couple of purposes: One was to serve as the official repository for notes and action items from the meeting. Instead of having one person be the designated note-taker, many people chipped in and contributed notes to the discussion as it was happening.

We also used Wave for back-channel discussions. While someone was giving a presentation, other people in the room could post questions and comments without interrupting the speaker.

Wave provides a place to get a lot of administrivia out of the way, and keep the administrivia from occupying time at the meeting.

For example: I'd been with Palisade less than three months at the time of the meeting, making me very much the new guy. Every company develops its own internal language and jargon, and when you're the new guy, you either drift through meetings in a cloud of confusion, or you interrupt constantly to ask questions. At the Palisade meeting, my colleagues were referring to prominent customers by abbreviations of their company names, they talked about "CABs" and "CARD," and I could ask for clarification of all those things in the Wave without interrupting the main presentations.

(By the way: CABs = Customer Advisory Boards. CARD = Customer Advocacy Relations Division.)

When we came back from lunch one day, I noticed one of my colleagues uploaded his PowerPoint presentation to the Wave. I thought that was a good idea, and so I did it myself. Later that afternoon, when it was my turn to give a presentation, I found that another colleague had already downloaded my presentation to another laptop, and that laptop was already connected to and configured for the display projector. So I didn't have to put everybody else at the meeting through the boredom of watching me connect my laptop to the projector, I could just stand up and start talking.

It's a small thing, but it impressed me. There had been no prior discussion. We each just saw something that looked like a good idea and did it.

With Wave, we ended up with a complete record of everything we discussed, with action items noted for follow-up after the meeting. The document still lives on Wave; I reviewed it just now to write this article.

But Google Wave has its down sides.

Wave is confusing. Computer users have grown accustomed to apps that require little documentation, you can start using them right away. But when you start with Google Wave, you have no idea what's going on. It's just a big, cluttered dog's breakfast. Even the scrollbars on Google Wave behave differently than you're used to.

Google Wave is distracting. You've got a meeting going on in front if you in real life, and another one happening in the Wave. Not everybody can multitask like that.

People don't really get the purpose. One colleague said he didn't see much use for it, the only way people used it was for back-channel discussions. He made it sound like the back-channel was an abuse of Wave, when in fact it's what the Wave is for.

While back-channel discussions are useful during presentations, at least one very important person is left out: The person actually giving the presentation. The human brain can't multitask that much; if you're giving a presentation, that's the only thing you're doing.

Wave is also somewhat redundant at a meeting like the one we had at Palisade, with fewer than 20 people all in the same location (with one exception -- one of us couldn't make it to the physical meeting and dialed in for the three days by phone). When it's a small group in one location, if you want to have a side-discussion, you can just politely interrupt the speaker and have the discussion in real life. However, I think that might be different on a conference call or Webinar, where it's much more intrusive to interrupt a speaker, and therefore Wave might be more useful.

Will Wave become mainstream? My gut feeling is no. It's too confusing to too many people, its purpose is not apparent. However, I do think we'll see many of the principles of Wave embedded in other collaboration applications.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.