What Google needs to do to keep us riding the Wave

You probably don't know this, since it was kept on the down-low, but Google sent out a bunch of invites to its new Google Wave product this week. I'm being sarcastic of course; unless you were in Bora Bora on vacation this week you couldn't have missed all the fuss. Even though 100,000 invites were sent out, people were clamoring for more, and there were reports of invites being sold on eBay. Clearly in the tech community at least, there's huge interest in this new product.

I was one of the lucky 100,000, getting an invite late Tuesday night. So are you ready for my review? Well you're going to be disappointed, because I don't have one yet. Why? Because no one else in my contacts list got an invite, and Google Wave is kind of pointless if the people you communicate with aren't using it.

I think this is going to be a huge challenge for Google. When Gmail first hit its early beta stage (and technically Google Wave isn't in beta, it's in a Preview phase) there was a lot of demand, and the lucky few who first got in could immediately start using it, sending gloating emails to all their friends telling them how cool Gmail was, getting emails back...just, you know, using the system as intended. When Google Apps launched, programmers could grab the local server and the SDK and immediately start coding. But with Wave, until a friend is in the system too, you're just waving into the wind.

I don't have a review because I don't feel like I can review a product or service until I've genuinely used it. I'm sure I could go on Twitter and find someone else who got an invite and we could exchange contact information and just play around with the features, but that's not really using the service, is it? As an early invitee, I was given the opportunity to send eight invites to friends, which I immediately did, but thus far none of them have gotten invites (Google was upfront about the fact that it could take a while before they'd get to my list of invitees).

I'm excited by what I've seen, which I'd personally describe as a cross between a multi-user Tumblr blog and a mailing list. You start a wave, invite friends into it, then everyone can easily add (or edit) text, images or video to it as they see fit. Other wave users can see these edits in real time, which should make collaborative 'wave-blogging' pretty interesting. All this is hypothetical because, again, I haven't shared a wave with anyone yet.

Just to be clear, I'm not faulting Google for rolling out invites slowly; the service is still pretty wobbly from all that I've read and I'm sure they're collecting great data from the folks using Wave now. More invites will go out soon enough and we'll all start connecting dots and start waving, at least in theory. When that happens, will we become confirmed Wave users, or will it just be a fun tech to play with for a while before going back to the old ways of plain old email?

That's the big challenge Google is going to face. Wave isn't a product so much as it's a service, and it's a service that is only useful (at least at this point) if everyone is using it. Imagine you have 20 contacts you need to keep in the loop about a project. Fifteen or them are on Wave, five of them aren't. What do you do? You have to persuade those five contacts to create a Wave account and teach them to Wave. Maybe they'll be up for it, but maybe they'll say "Let's just use email; it's easier." So you use email, and after this happens half a dozen times on different projects, you just give up on Wave.

Of course, email was once in the same position, and email clearly made it, and maybe Wave can too. But email wasn't dependent on one company. I think the success of Wave (assuming it turns out to be a stable, useful product, I mean) depends on how well Google distributes and opens it. They've said they want Wave to be a platform that many developers build tools for, which sounds encouraging.

I think the first order of business should be developing a simple way to do regular exports of a wave sent via email (or perhaps the wave would be published to a secure website and the emails would just be pings to get the user to go read the wave). That way non-Wavers on a project can at least access the information that the Wavers are compiling. It won't be real time or collaborative for the non-Wavers but at least it'll be accessible. And it might induce them to create their own Wave account, once those are widely available. I think Google needs to get this kind of functionality out early (like, now) in order to keep interest in Wave riding high. Because if those of us lucky enough to get in early can't actually use Wave, we're going to wind up rejecting it. That's just human nature: keep what we can use, discard what we can't.

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