Thursday, October 15, 2009

First notes from the Wave

(warning: this article contains a lot of geeky jargon)

So after months of waiting, hinting, cajoling and finally the age-old medium of pleading by lolcat, I finally got onto Google Wave. It was the lolcat that swung it and my friend Riaz, whose gift of an invite finally makes up for all those years bitching about my computer preferences. And I'm sure some of you are eager to hear my first impressions on how it could be useful for the hyperlocal blogger. Still others, I know, don't want me to say another word about it. I'll get some screenshots up as soon as I can find time - and in case you were leaping to ask, I haven't been given any invitations myself yet.

Wave is is a big learning curve. The official welcome does little more than tell you how to play Sudoko and gets you started on extensions with a nice little questionnaire. There are some incredibly useful guides out there, but you need to be willing to look for them and if you're the sort of person who gets irritated when you get given a load of free tools that don't work exactly as you think they should, well you might not like Wave.

Here's the most useful thing I have learnt so far that wasn't obvious: "with:public". Once you've got on, run around excitedly, stuck a pin on a map and pinged all your contacts who pop up when you arrive, the search phrase "with:public" will counter that terrible feeling that you're waving on your own and it'll give you the best way to start learning. After the reassurance that you're not alone comes the crushing weight of chatter, but just like on Twitter you need to be selective. And also perhaps more patient: the public waves are heavy on processing power and getting rid of them can be a bit slow because Wave is still quite buggy. It has fair crushed my poor ageing Mac.

Here's the key thing: Wave is an early version of a set of tools. Nothing more or less. You learn how to use it by finding out what you can do and then working out how you do it (and all the time bearing in mind that it might not work at all just yet). I'm rethinking my visions of it as an all-purpose control centre, although hopefully it will make publishing a lot quicker and easier as more robots and gadgets are adding. I don't see yet that it is an easier way of organising information than an iGoogle page. I think its real power is going to be in rich collaboration on focussed tasks. It's going to be ideal for groups who want to work together to speed up researching, writing and editing blogs. It's a fantastic environment for peer support and learning, once you've overcome the initial barriers. Conference reporting can be done much more accurately by crowds and the potential will be there to push all the content out to other sites immediately.

The big limitation, unless the interface becomes significantly clearer to those from a non-techie/hackie/adventuring background, will be that you wouldn't want to let all your friends loose on it just yet, else you'll get howls of anger on a scale familiar to anyone who has tried to get IE6 users onto a Ning. Normally I tell newcomers not to worry, they can't break anything but actually the scope to break a wave with all the powerful tools at your fingertips is pretty wide. Lower access levels might help with this, sort of entry-level waves where people can just edit certain sections, but that would be no different from a Google Doc or Mediawiki page. This would not be Wave at its most potentially powerful but it's probably a necessary step for the full opening of Wave to work well.

A better solution is that we need to work on the underlying culture shift that others have already identified the need for. Developing confidence in exploring, hacking, fixing and searching is going to be really important if people are going to be able to use collaborative systems effectively. It will also be a test in whether we can all get along and play nicely together. It will be interesting to find out how people work around limited web connectivity. Wave is going to be as big a success or disaster as we choose to make it.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009