Google Wave - First Look review

While other sites are writing reviews of Google Wave, we think it's a little unfair to judge Google's new communications tool so early, especially as it's only just stepped blinking out into the light of the web and already the hype bubble is bursting.

Much of the pre-release coverage consisted of breathy reports about how Wave was going to revolutionise communications. According to blog posts from the people who snuck into the developer preview of the service, we would all be dumping email and IM wholesale within minutes of getting an invite to this shiny multicoloured Googlegasmic utopia.

The reality was less impressive. When most people activated their Google Wave invitations they opened their browsers to a barren wasteland, because they didn't know anyone else on the service. They waved with themselves for a minute or two, before closing their browser bitterly disappointed. Some discovered "Public waves" - which are waves available to anyone, but were then overwhelmed with too many messages, too quickly.

At that point, the hype bubble burst and scathing articles and tweets proliferated about how Wave was pointless. But over the last few weeks, more users have trickled onto the service and most people will now know one or two others who are using it.

At the time of writing, Google Wave consists of four panes. There's an inbox, a pane to view selected waves in, a contacts bar (which lists any of your Google Contacts that are in the test program, as well as anyone you've invited) and a navigation bar. All can be collapsed into a space at the top of the screen where they become a drop-down menu instead.

You can save searches for particular subjects, as well as file things into folders (GMail's tagging functionality is still present too, but at the bottom of individual waves). There's a settings menu, too, though that's currently empty. There's currently a few extensions available - weather, maps and a poll gadget. 

So what's the reality? The answer, happily, is both. Google Wave in its current state is an impotent, stunted, stub of a web service, which is functional at best, and buggy at worst. But it's also the future. Consider the state of Twitter in 2007 - it was just a website with little messages that people pushed out via SMS. No one was terribly impressed.

But then it opened up its platform. It put out an API. It let other applications interface with it. The simplest examples were desktop and mobile apps that meant that you didn't have to visit the Twitter website to find out what was going on. Instead, you could have little notifications that popped-up as necessary when things happened.

Gradually, as a result of these "extensions" to Twitter, its popularity started to rocket. The same thing will likely happen to Wave. While it might, for now, be a strange communications tool that sits awkwardly between email and instant messaging, it has the potential - as a platform - to really improve communications on the web, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it can be used both actively and passively. You can ignore a Wave from your boss about why your project's late, like you would an email, while still gossiping with your friend about last night's Strictly Come Dancing, like you would in IM. But it takes the best bits of both, and chops out the worst bits.

It's better than IM because all history is saved, searchable and taggable. You can also add new people into the conversation very easily without them missing anything that's already been said. It's better than email because response can be instant - so instant you can see people typing (though that's more of a gimmick than a useful feature), and all messages about a subject are grouped into one thread, rather than filling up your inbox as multiple people reply.

Tools could roll out that - for example - automatically add in Spotify links to songs when you're talking about them, or allow some users more control over a Wave than others have, or even that let you integrate voice and video chat into waves, and use speech-to-text engines to automatically transcribe conversations for future annotation.

Verdict

The possibilities are endless and so, therefore, are the possibilities of Google Wave. What it needs most now is to be made stable and opened up. Once developers can access the API and anyone can freely sign up, and when there's desktop notifiers for Wave, people will begin to see its true potential.