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I’ve spent a couple of weeks experimenting with Google Wave – Google’s new real-time communication tool, but am yet to be convinced that for the majority of users it will prove a more useful communication suite than the compelling combination of Gmail, Google Docs, Google Chat and Google Talk.

What is Wave? It is part email, instant messaging, wiki editor and social networking platform. Users create “waves” – open templates for communication that can include plain text, documents, photos and real-time instant messages – and I mean real time. In Google Wave you see people typing the messages letter by letter – great for revealing the scatty typing habits and jumbled logic of your friends and colleagues.

These instant messages are threaded like posts in the comment section of some blogs, so there is some organisation to them. An interesting feature also allows you to play back how a wave was formed, with content appearing in the order it was added in real-time. That’s a great project management tool for teams working collaboratively on documents – you can easily go back and see where your project went off the rails, but does it have any application in the real world for everyday users of web services?

google wave image

Early incarnation – needs work

One of the Google-generated examples of a wave is a weekend barbeque invite. All the invitees participate in the wave, RSVPing to the invite, adding notes, letting everyone know what food they’ll be bringing. I can think of a whole host of uses for this for planning things like weddings and social club outings. Email is just too clunky for this type of interaction with everyone these days struggling with mail overload. So Wave has a ready market there. You can easily add documents and photos – the latter can be viewed back in a nice slide show format launched from within Wave. So more nice features there.

But its the interaction of the wiki creator, instant messaging and the absence integration of email that I have a problem with. When I initially heard about Wave it was being pitched as the next big thing in electronic communication. But I assumed it would be built around Gmail, Google’s hugely successful webmail programme. However, Google Wave doesn’t integrate Gmail and its implementation of instant messaging isn’t as sophisticated as Google Chat. I was hoping that Gmail would sit within Wave and I would be able to drag email messages and attachments I want to share from the Gmail client straight across into a Wave – drag and drop functionality between email inbox and wiki editor, in other words.

That’s not the case and it doesn’t seem as though you can email a message to a wave, in the same way for instance, you can email messages and contact details to the web-based CRM package Highrise. The lack of email integration effectively limits the audience to Wave users – you have to be in the Google Wave world to participate in the conversation, which means that it is unlikely to tear us away from email. I never wanted that to happen, I perfectly like my Gmail inbox/calendar/tasks/docs/chat, which I use to pretty much organise my entire life. It seems an opportunity to make email more useful and flexible has been passed over here. There’s even a public wave on whether Wave’s incompatibility with email is a problem – so other people are finding the same limitation.

Wave apps may be the saviour

All of this may be solved by the plug-ins that are likely to become available for Google Wave. At the moment the line-up of apps is limited to emoticons and Google Maps implementations although Graphy apparently allows real-time collaboration on graphs and flow charts which could be very useful. A company called 6rounds has developed an interesting video conferencing plug-in which looks promising. The developer community is likely to get onboard here quickly so the number of apps will grow.

Elsewhere, Wave still seems to be a little clunky – often there’s a lag in loading Waves and some of the navigation features could be streamlined. When you check out the large number of public waves that already exist in Google Wave, you see pretty quickly that there is a huge appetite for public, real-time discussion, collaboration and interaction. There’s some appeal in that, but outside of planning the weekend barbeque or working on a document with colleagues spread around the country – or the world, I can’t see the email-killing potential of Google Wave just yet…

Pros:

Google Wave is free (or will be on its public release)

Collaboration tools are user-friendly

Open-source, so support for iGoogle apps and good potential for API interaction

Cons:

Email integration is lacking – Gmail functionality not available in Wave

Instant messaging client lack’s Google Chat’s sophistication

Sluggish response times and poor navigation and menu design