Sitting out Google Wave

I've decided I won't be part of the 100,000 or so special folks who are already rolling up their sleeves and digging into the guts of Google's newest uber-desirable online application, the private beta of Google Wave. This will give some poor fellow extra opportunity to troll eBay, bidding $100 or so for an invitation.

It's not like I'm eschewing some exclusive community. Like Gmail before it, Google Wave accounts will eventually be freely available to anyone with a pulse. But unlike Gmail -- which remains in the limelight with regular updates delivered to a widespread base of users who passionately use the service -- Google Wave's lifespan likely won't be as charmed.

Wave is no Gmail

I've been happily using Gmail since 2004, and just don't see Google Wave becoming as central to my workflow. For all the Wave hype, I just don't believe users are willing to throw their work into an open playground for the sake of being more collaborative. Frankly, collaboration isn't the holy grail of productivity.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)Pick your jaw up off the floor, please, and hear me out on this one: I appreciate the power of collaboration. I recognize how valuable it can be when people whose heads should be together are instead scattered across the surface of the planet. I completely understand the limitations conventional productivity and communication tools place on this process because I live with them every day. I rail in frustration when multiple team members chime in out of sequence in disjointed e-mail threads, forcing me to spend countless hours reassembling their feedback.

I know that the current application-workflow model is broken and needs fixing. I'm just not convinced that Google Wave is it. Or that we're even ready for it.

Perhaps Google Docs has colored my point of view already. I started using this service regularly because I liked the concept of productivity apps that didn't die when my PC did. I appreciated the ability to jam out ideas in a Web-based document, then access them later from any device for review. I liked the way it always saved my stuff so I could pick up where I left off after a system crash or power outage.

I also liked the way it allowed real-time sharing with other Google Docs users, and hoped colleagues would eventually recognize the benefits. No such luck: To this day, the world of document-based deliverables in which I live continues to rely on standard Microsoft Office documents e-mailed back and forth, using tracked changes and embedded comments as "collaboration" tools.

The problem with granting everyone access

Despite the productivity benefits of moving to common, Web-based files that anyone (with permission) can access and edit, getting people to give up the tried-and-true is a virtually impossible task. Part of the reason involves corporate security. It's one thing to implement a collaborative solution for your own enterprise. When the network and client infrastructure is centrally controlled, it's relatively easy for corporate IT to dictate who uses what tools and how they generally should use them.

But it's a completely different story when businesses are deploying open collaboration among themselves. E-mailed attachments are separate and distinct from the repositories where the files themselves are created and edited. So organizations willingly allow employees to shift data out of the repository and into e-mail for external sharing. Sharing in this instance means not changing, which is the opposite of the Google Wave model. As much as Wave's concept of open access streamlines group productivity, allowing others to directly edit data in the repository violates every principle of data security and integrity. And that explains, in large measure, why we all haven't already switched to full-on collaborative solutions.

That's the problem from a corporate perspective; from a personal perspective, it's not much better. Having colleagues and clients edit work in real-time is the kind of thing that always sounds better than it is. After I've spent half the night updating a white paper draft, for instance, the last thing I want is three remote contributors completely restructuring my work before I've had a chance to sign off on it.

Although vendors can and should make it easy to snapshot documents at specific version levels, the current state of popular tools like Google Docs is nowhere near that reality. I either trust my fellow collaborators to respect the integrity of my work and not muck up the baseline document, or I revert to form and save the last major update to my hard drive where no one can touch it. Either way, it falls far short of the Utopian world depicted by collaborative suite vendors.

Stick with what's comfy

As much as I applaud Google for pushing the bounds with tools like Wave, I can't help but feel that the world isn't ready to abandon methods that, while hugely inefficient and resource-intensive, are perceived as the most comfortable and safe alternatives. Software developers are bubbling with excitement over ever more open and powerful means of allowing everyone to roll up their sleeves and work simultaneously and richly on a given chunk of data or deliverable. Software users, meanwhile, remain locked into a much more mundane reality.

In his column last week, my colleague Scott Fulton concluded that, for now at least, Google Wave may be a solution in search of a problem. His point is well taken, and makes me wonder if we've been so hyped up by the collaboration marketing machine that we've forgotten how all of this is supposed to improve the way we work. To a large extent, most of us rather enjoy the relatively disconnected tools that allow us to singularly focus on getting work done without being constantly interrupted. We also enjoy having full control over our work until such time that we wish to share it with others -- and we're willing to put up with the requisite inconveniences of previous-generation communication technologies.

Only when this paradigm changes will tools like Google Wave make more sense than they do today.


Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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