Google Wave: It's innovative, but is it truly useful?

Currently in a controlled beta that everyone wants to try out, Google Wave has enormous potential -- and serious limitations

Google Wave is a groundbreaking real-time collaborative tool that has the potential to be an ideal way for members of a group to work with one another. But it's not clear how useful it will be in the real world. It's the kind of tool that you want to use, but one that you may not be able to figure out how to fit into your work life.

In fact, Google Wave is one of those services that's nearly impossible to describe to those who haven't used it.

One way to think of it is as a mashup of threaded e-mail conversations and instant messaging -- on steroids. Rich content, including Google maps, interactive polling, videos and more, can be embedded in conversations (called waves). And the rich content is live and interactive. If you embed a Google map, for example, all participants in the conversation can use it as if they were on the Google Maps site.

All this makes for a kind of in-depth collaboration that's not possible with more traditional means of Internet communication. Theoretically, Google Wave can help groups share information, make decisions and take actions more quickly.

That's in theory, though. In practice, it's not clear what will happen, because traditional e-mail still rules most people's lives. At this point, Google Wave is still in a relatively tightly controlled, invitation-only beta. Given that it's free, however, once it becomes public -- or if you're lucky enough to score an invite -- it's worth your while to test it out, if only for the "coolness" factor.

Diving into Google Wave

Google Wave's overall interface resembles a traditional e-mail client. Its window is divided into three panes: contacts and navigation on the left, a browsable list of all of your "waves" in the middle, and the actual wave you're involved in on the right.

To create a wave, you click the New Wave button at the top of the middle pane. You invite others to participate in the wave either by typing their names at the top of the right-hand pane or by dragging names there from your Contacts list. Then just begin typing.

Google Wave interface

The basic Google Wave interface.

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Those whom you've invited to the wave don't have to be using Google Wave at the time you're typing the message -- they will see the new wave the next time they log in. If they are already logged in when you create the wave, they will get a notice that a new wave has been created, and they will be able to see your message as you type it. Unlike with instant messages, participants see the message being composed live, as it is typed, rather than after the message has been finished and sent.

I'm not convinced this is a good thing. Most of us don't get a sentence completely right the first time -- we commit typos, then go back and edit them, or we start with one idea, think better of it, erase it and start over again. With Google Wave, the recipients see that entire process.

Google Wave: creating a new wave

Creating a new wave.

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