Google Wave’s unproductive email metaphors

Wall of water

OK, I took a few hours off from playing with Google Wave yesterday. I read all my comments on the post I wrote Thursday about Google Wave, many of which were very ascerbic toward me.

I took the day off and said “what if they are right?” and “is Google Wave a really great way to collaborate with other people?”

On coming back to Google Wave with fresh eyes tonight and even after collaborating with people on a few things my answer is “no, they are not right” and “no, Google Wave is even less productive than email.”

But, first, over on TechCrunch and Mashable I discovered this cute little video that showed off what Google Wave is and how it could be used. In that video you’ll learn that Google Wave is like email but “modernized.” Well, OK, let’s see how the email metaphor holds up and see if Google Wave has actually made us more productive, shall we?

I’ve been studying how teams collaborate for quite some time. I’ve worked at small companies, big ones like NEC and Microsoft, and medium ones like Rackspace.

I’ve interviewed lots of productivity experts over the years, including the guy who wrote “Getting Things Done.”

Plus I’ve been doing public collaboration for more than 20 years too.

Here’s what I’ve learned: email sucks.

Email is probably the most unproductive tool you use. Even though it is the most familiar. Here’s some reasons why:

1. Anyone can send you email. That leads to spam. But worse, that spam, or that funny email from Aunt Sue, gets placed on top of the email from your wife or your boss. Or, the request from a customer that could lead to a huge contract. (A coworker of mine once screwed up an account because such an email was missed).

2. Email in your account is only available to you. So, let’s say you are pitching Toyota tomorrow for a new kind of headlight assembly. You might be talking with your boss about that and maybe an engineer or two who made the product you’re going to pitch. But, is there a chance that another coworker could get involved because he might know something about Toyota without being directly asked to get involved? No. Yet if you were talking in a more open toolset like Salesforce, Yammer, SocialText, or Sharepoint that other guy might actually see you’re talking about something he has knowledge about. I’ve seen this happen over and over because I talk about my projects in public. Heck, that’s exactly how this interview with LaVar Burton got done (it really is a good one too, thanks to Michael Sean Wright who I met online and who took over interviewing duties while I missed the Twitter Conference).

3. Email is hard to search, because of limited metadata and because you can’t search across company, just your own inbox.

4. Email gets turned off when you leave a company. At NEC I had more than a gig of email. It was deleted the day I left there. As it should be. But, the guy who replaced me sure could have used a lot of the knowledge I built up in that email store. Once I left, though, it was gone forever from both people inside the company and outside.

5. Email doesn’t tell you much about the person. Xobni and Gist and other companies are trying to change that, so you can see stuff about who they are, what they’ve done online, etc. This helps you to prioritize your email.

6. Prioritizing your email is difficult at best. Tools like ClearContext try to help by studying your answering patterns.

But, to repeat myself from the other day, Google Wave adds many of these unproductive problems and then lays another few unproductive things on top. What are those?

1. Chat. Live chat. You know, the kind where you can see me typing my characters. Why is this unproductive? Because your eye gets drawn to anything that moves on screen. This is a HUGE attention distractor. That means less productivity for you. And it’s not easy to turn off (I’ve tried to find it). Cure? Only open Wave once in a while, never leave it open. That is a demonstration that it’s even worse than email.

2. Social networking. The social networking features here are far worse than Twitter’s or Facebook’s. Why? No bio. No real names. No real way to manage them and put them into groups. I’d really like to ONLY see Rackspace employees when I sign into Google Wave. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet and that should be the FIRST thing that a collaboration tool like this lets you do. It’s inconsistent too. In Contacts at bottom left, full names aren’t used, but if you click “+” and add someone to a wave there you’ll see full names. Consistency people!

3. Imperfect affordances. There’s a trash can on my screen in Google Wave. Yet I haven’t figured out how to delete anything or why it’s there. Drag and drop? Doesn’t work. Right click? No “trash” or “delete.” Up on the toolbar? Nope, no trash. Now I’m sure someone will call me an idiot for not figuring it out, but I’m making a point here. Stuff here doesn’t work the same way it does on your desktop, or even in your email.

4. They take an email metaphor but they threw out the good parts. I can’t figure out how to BCC someone, for instance. That’s something that lots of us use to make sure that our bosses are kept up to date on projects without including them in the conversation. Oh, yes, I’m sure there’s a way to do it, but in Gmail it’s in your face. In Google Wave? Can’t find it.

5. No clear integration into Google Docs and Spreadsheets, which is where a lot of us are already doing collaboration. Now I know why we need SocialWok. To join all these things together. But why wasn’t that done in Wave?

6. It’s sssssssssllllllllloooooooooowwwwwwww. Sorry, when I’m collaborating with other people I want everything to be snappy fast. Even if you think I’m an idiot on every other point this one will really piss you off. Yes, I know, it’s not beta, but on the other hand first impressions matter and if this thing is so slow now imagine when it gets millions of people onto it.

7. The most powerful part of Google Wave is the bots and extensions that are possible to it, but if you are looking for a well thought out “store” where you can acquire those, like Apple’s iPhone has, give it up. You’ll have to find these on your own (I’m getting a ton BECAUSE I opened up my wave to everyone and now people are asking me “did you get this bot yet?” Of course opening up my wave to everyone has made the tool very unproductive in other ways).

8. Where did all these people come from? Just like with email, anyone can get access to your “inbox.” Including spammers and bad actors. All sorts of people have put stuff in my inbox already. This is NOT like other collaboration tools where I have to agree to see your stuff first (like Skype or other IM). The spam opportunities here are immense until we get a great social networking set of management tools. Worse, even Twitter lets you “block” people, which makes them invisible to your inbox. Not sure how to do that with Google Wave.

9. Waves are seemingly only open to other wave users. Not sure about that, but I can’t see a permalink on anything. Right now there’s an interesting wave going about technology. I don’t know how to link you to it or let you know where to find it. So, now I’ve got to figure out a new metaphor for telling you about things. I’m sure everything is URI/URL based but I can’t find them so I can’t share them with you. And people wonder why I blog. Hint: you can link to this blog easily by copying the URL. Everyone knows how to do that. Now try to do the same thing with a Wave. Wave seems like it wants lockin. IE, to really get a lot out of Wave you have to also use Wave all day long. Email isn’t like that. You can use any email client and you have lots of choices. Don’t like Gmail? Use Hotmail. Don’t like Hotmail? Use Yahoo mail. Don’t like those? Get your own pop server and do it yourself. Etc etc. Now try to do that with Wave. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

So, what will I use for collaboration instead?

1. With Rocky and Rob and Fran and Robert at Rackspace I will continue to use email to notify them of new projects and Google Docs and Spreadsheets to be the objects of those collaborations. Will Wave change this? No.
2. With them I will use Skype or Twitter DM’s for chit chatty stuff that doesn’t need to be kept around in case I get hit by a bus. Stuff like “where we going drinking when we get into San Antonio next?” Actually, this is already how I’m seeing people using Wave, but that means Wave is already a noise generator that is similar to Twitter. Not good. And since I can’t lock out everyone else (at least yet, or at least that I’ve figured out because the UI is so complicated).
3. For deep, project-starting stuff, we will use voice on Skype or just phones, which are really great because I can call from anywhere, not just where I have a fast Internet connection.
4. For group stuff that needs to be kept around and be searchable we’ll continue to use FriendFeed’s groups, which can be made private.
5. For document repository, we have a lot of choices, lots of which are better than Google Wave. Things like Dropbox or or JungleDisk. Or even old-school Sharepoint, which nearly every large company already has implemented.
6. Because of their openness and URL-centricity, real wikis are still more productive (and don’t have the bad email metaphor or the attention stealing character-by-character display). Can you imagine Wikipedia being done as a Wave? What an abortion that would be. There’s a ton of great wikis out there that are far more interesting for group collaboration than Wave is. Oh, and I bet that if you want that info to get into Microsoft’s Bing search engine that Wikis will beat Google Waves everytime!
7. Specific domain collaboration. Here I’m thinking of working with designers. Compare ConceptShare to Google Wave. ConceptShare will beat it every time.

Anyway, I could keep going.

Where will Wave prove interesting? I think some developer will find a new, simple, metaphor and will use Google Wave’s APIs to develop something interesting. SocialWok demonstrates just that is possible. But we haven’t seen that breakthrough idea yet and, so, for most of you Google Wave will just turn your collaborative life unproductive.

That’s OK, we do things that are unproductive all the time like play Farmville.

For geeks like me, wasting time on cool new technologies is lots of fun. But for most of the world?

It’s just wasting time. Good luck out there! Me? I think I’ll go do something really fun with my unproductive time left this weekend, like take my kids to watch real surfers in Santa Cruz, which is where I shot the photo above.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

88 thoughts on “Google Wave’s unproductive email metaphors

  1. I'm glad that you're not drinking the Google Kool-Aid, but it is an early release and I would expect that by the time they get to say a version 2, it will be vstly improved.

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  4. OK, NOW you've got a point, Robert.

    Google needed some way to hang a definition of Wave on a particular application, and e-mail was the culprit. I don't see how else Google could've explained it and launched it to the open source community, but there are probably some brilliant campaign message strategists out there who could make a recommendation or two.

    It may be productive if the GoogleWave folks (and you, and the community) would shift from comparing fully mature, ripe Apples to just-planted Orange seeds.

    While the Wave team's original goal was to create a better email solution, what they discovered was a concept with what they sensed has for more potential. So, rather than invest too much of their own time trying to find a nail for their hammer, they opted to open it up for the community and let Developers create their own Wave-based apps.

    The challenge is, when one opens up code (and concepts) to the OS Community, one never knows where it'll go. That's a bad thing for those in the message-massaging business, for fear of the message getting out of control and taking on a life of its own. That's good news for the OS Community, that can't help but drool over getting their mitts on a past-proven genius-level team's code.

    I commend Google for tossing a gem out to the Open Source Community to see what they can dream up. Let's face it, most companies wouldn't take that risk; and the ones that do often toss out their clunkers.

    My sense is, GoogleWave's not a clunker. That said, if it were 100% guaranteed to succeed, it wouldn't be so damn interesting to so many. ;)

    Definition of Hype:

    1. obvious and intentional exaggeration.
    2. an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as “to wait an eternity.”

    So, “over-hype” is by definition, “hype.” GoogleWave will remain in “hype” mode until it has a practical application or two (or ten).

    I'd like to think we could give it some time, and provide the 3PDs out there with some ideas and feedback on what we think GW could be good for. I'd hate to see this new way of thinking die on the vine before it even bears fruit.

    - John Coonen
    Co-Host, CMS Expo Learning Conference

  5. You might be right at some points, as well as you might be wrong with other points, but I think is too early to make conclusions about something all new like Google Wave. I would wait 5 years to make a post like this. Many new tools will come up with Google Wave, is a tool to build many more tools. So now it depends on the programming community and our demand and imagination to make Wave what we want it to be.

  6. I don't “get” Google Wave. Have tried to use it, not seeing the benefit. But then again, I didn't “get” blogging initially, either. Some things have to grow on us. Not sure if Wave will grow or go away, but as it stands now, I'm not feeling the love.

  7. For me at least, I view the current implementation of Wave to be a random guess from Google. The ability to have text be asynchronous in real time is the innovation that I see. Im holding off from decisions, until developers get some time to play with it.

  8. When was Google Wave ever promoted as a “social network”? It's not Facebook. It's not Twitter. It never was.

    What it is, is a really cool protocol for collaboration and app development. I really don't know why Google bothered inviting more users, rather than pulling from the developer signup form. Until a ton of cool stuff is developed, lots of users really aren't going to get it, and then they write unimaginative, whiny nonsense like this post.

  9. I notice you mentioning that Skype is a good option but TBH any time I get involved with it doing work it ends up being nearly worse than an email. I still find that even though people can be a real pain in the ass to talk to the phone is an incredibly useful and efficient way of communicating :)

  10. Appreciated this post as a follow on to it’s predecessor. Great way to dissect the tool. I used gwave as a pseudo email tool the day I got it and it’s been dormant ever since.

    It needs some real BANG for the Buck to get me to use it. It’s not a publishing platform, it’s not email, it’s not a super collaborative tool.

    We’ll see how it develops.

  11. There's one more complaint: How will I use Wave with my family, some of whom — like my parents — have just figured out email? They will never be able to use Wave!!

  12. Don’t you find it kind of ironic that you’re complaining about Google Wave’s productivity problems while maintaining your usual blitz of stream of consciousness type messages on Twitter and other websites? The same kind of complaints could be made about those websites. Here’s my point by point rebuttal to your rant:

    1. If you’re not using it, use the amazing “Minimize” feature. That’s why you can minimize the inbox and other waves. If you don’t need to be looking at it while you’re working, then don’t. How hard is that?

    2. Social networking is hardly related to productivity. There actually is group functionality in Wave, but it’s currently in its infancy, so expect to see more on that over the coming weeks.

    3. When everyone is removed from the wave, it goes into the trash by itself. Again, this is a problem how?

    4. BCC was never a desirable feature in email. It simply forwards an email that you’ve already sent to others.

    5. There’s no integration with Google Docs in traditional email, either. That doesn’t take away from Wave. Just be patient.

    6. You’ve totally lost me here. First you’re complaining about being able to see everyone update instantaneously down to their very keystrokes, now you’re saying it’s too slow? Huh?

    7. There are already websites that do this. Why would we want a centralized “store” controlled by one company like iTunes? Shouldn’t we be moving away from this model?

    8. Notice the Spam button in your Inbox? Maybe you should have actually researched this instead of Twittering about your Twitter clients.

    9. Waves are only open to other Wave users because Wave is in a private beta. Wait a couple of months and this will be a nonissue.

    Regardless, I’ve found that whether a service can be used for productive work depends more on how it is used, than how it is designed. In that sense, I think email is one of the least productive tools ever designed, but it serves well as a communication medium. Notice how I replied to this three day after it was written? Learn to turn some things off and focus on your work now and then.

    Old habits are hard to break. I’m sure ten years from now, email will still be used for forwarding chain letters and Scoble will still be trolling the Internet for Microsoft. Some of us will have moved on, but other things just never change.

  13. Last night I posted a public Wave seeking other women using it, nothing feminist just have no girls on my contacts list yet and was wondering what the gender ratios are – given social media is predominately female based (and possibly to it's determent).

    Almost as soon as I posted the blip it was hijacked, my original post and comments following it were deleted. The Wave is now titled “Wave's sexiest ladies” and is just filled with spam.

    It's sad that even with such limited access it's becoming degrading.

    Watch the replay here:

  14. You’d be surprised how few clients for email there was in first decade it was invented. I bet in a year there will be a ton of Wave clients.

  15. That’s OK, we do things that are unproductive all the time like play Farmville.
    For geeks like me, wasting time on cool new technologies is lots of fun.
    This is exactly I was telling to some one after I stopped playing Farmville :P

  16. Just hit the space bar and it goes to the first unread portion of the wave. Keep hitting space to go through other unread portions and when you get to the end, hit space again and it goes to the next wave with unread messages.

  17. Google Wave is currently an alpha release, at least in my opinion. I believe Google allowed limited public access to allow users to criticize & test Wave. So definitely, Robert's points should be taken into consideration by Dr. Wave's team. However, it's also a bit unfair to criticize Wave for bugs or features that can easily be fixed in the next preview release. Here are some points I'd like to make:

    1. The “distracting” real-time updates cannot be turned off, but they can be filtered easily. I'm currently viewing “Public Waves”, a custom search that shows all public waves, so definitely the updates come every few seconds. However, if I switch to “By Me”, there a only a few waves in my stream so the updates come less often. So, to minimize distraction, create a custom search that limits your stream to important waves.

    2. The social networking aspect of Wave definitely needs improvement, but I can appreciate the reasoning behind the current set-up. Just like Twitter, Wave's social networking is less personal than Facebook, but allows easier discovery of people & topics that may be of interest to a user. I'm sure Google will allow filtering your stream to view waves with people who are added to your Contacts, which will also help solve the 1st problem. Even Twitter doesn't have groups yet, so we should give Google time to implement this properly.

    3. The lack of an easy access to deleting a Wave is definitely a valid criticism. I've been using Wave on a slow connection, so I'm not really sure if dragging the Wave to the Trash works consistently right now, but that's what I did to some of my drafts. A “Move to Trash” button would be the best option, though with the current lack of granular access rights control, this might cause even more problems.

    4. BCC is an feature that will not work in Wave, since the paradigm is different. All a Wave's participants are displayed on the top, so if you add your boss to the Wave, he should be able to see it, and people will know that he sees it. If you want to send him a private message, you use “Private reply”.

    5. As I said, this is an alpha release, so Docs integration is not implemented yet. Even Gmail is not integrated yet, and I think that will come first. Even though Wave is publicly available, it's definitely still in a sandbox, just bigger.

    6. Wave's scalability is definitely a valid concern, but I believe that Google will improve this as they observe the usage patterns of the community. As it is, I have no issues with speed, though Wave definitely works best on Chrome, and there are noticeable differences when I try Wave on Safari or Firefox.

    7. Like I said, this is a alpha release, so the number of extensions is still small. As the user & developer communities grow, the number of extensions will increase. Just give it time, this is the part of Wave that I'm most excited about.

    8. Just like e-mail, people can send you messages easily. That's why there's a “Spam” button. You can't block people directly right now, but that can be added in a future release.

    9. The easiest way to share a wave is to add a participant to a wave from your contacts; that's even easier than sending a link through e-mail. Waves are definitely open to other Wave users at the moment because Wave is on a limited public preview. That's also why the only way to access Wave is through the Wave website, the APIs are still in early development since this a preview release. The Wave Embed API is available though, so that might help some fellow Wavers with sharing certain waves with the public.

    So, is Wave ready for the mainstream? Nope. Will I continue using Wave? Definitely. I see the potential for this platform, and I want to see it improve. So, go ahead & criticize Wave, but don't write it off until it's been given some time to grow.

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