Friday, June 07, 2013

Google Wave Redux

A number of years ago I wrote about Google Wave, and then a bit later I wrote about Wave’s demise, including an aside to show that even people who were using it [a bit] didn’t quite get it, and then wrote about Wave’s demise again, including a theory that perhaps Wave had simply fallen under the bus of Google’s product roadmap. (My assumption at the time was that it was shunted aside in favour of Buzz, making me all the more bitter when Buzz was also shelved.) It was a tough blow, but I managed to carry on. I’m a trooper. My main disappointment was that a good product was being shunted aside because other competing products had gotten in the way, but those are sometimes the realities we operate under.

But now I’m not so sure.

Shortly after the demise of Wave (at least in retrospect), Google introduced “discussions” to Google Docs, which was an obvious reuse of the Wave technology. This wasn’t a surprise—even when Google shut Wave down they’d indicated that the technology would probably find its way into other Google products—but it seemed like a pretty hollow victory to me. So comments are slightly better in documents; who cares, really? Not exactly revolutionary, more like a minor productivity improvement.

That same year they launched Google+, which was obviously a much bigger launch than just updated commenting functionality in Docs. I had mixed reactions to Google+, based on my previous aspirations for Wave. On the one hand they were introducing another social media product—not directly a “Facebook replacement,” though definitely a Facebook competitor—were they going to let it live and thrive, or just let it drop like they had done (I figured) with Wave? If they did let it thrive, though, maybe some of the Wave concepts and technologies would find new life. But this was before I’d really dipped my toes into the social networking waters, I wasn’t on Facebook (and still am not), so I admit I missed some of the nuances involved in this move.

Earlier this year it was announced that Blogger comments were getting an update, and being integrated with Google+. “Interesting,” I thought. “Tying the social media aspects with the publishing aspects of those Google products together makes a lot of sense.” And would it be too much to assume that some Wave technologies are making their way into that mix? Probably not, I’m betting.

But what really got me thinking was when they announced that Google Talk was going to be phased out in favour of Hangouts. I used Talk a lot, so I was initially trepidatious—humans don’t like change, even humans in the tech industry—but I steeled myself and made the switch pretty much immediately. I knew it was coming regardless of my feelings on the topic, so might as well get used to it, right? And it would probably have new features and all that. What I noticed immediately though was that there was less of a concept of being “online” or “offline.” Definitely no “Busy” status, or “Appear Invisible” so that you could see others and they couldn’t see you. In hangouts you send people messages and if they happen to be on a computer (or their phone) and want to respond instantly, like an IM conversation, then they will, and if they don’t happen to be able to “hang out” at that point then they’ll get to it later.

To old-school instant messaging folks that might seem like a loss of functionality. I’ve seen a few IM clients in my day that would allow that type of thing—I think ICQ had an “offline messages” feature if I recall correctly, and maybe one or two others—but the focus of instant messaging was always on the “instant” part. If you want to send offline messages that’s what email is for; instant messaging is for chatting. I imagine that lots of folks will complain about this, but this is very far from my point, because I actually like the feature. It is, in fact, reminiscent of Wave.

And that’s where this post came from: Some of the Wave concepts are reemerging, but instead of coming in one unified product like Wave they’re coming into being as integrations between various products. Blogger comments and Docs “discussions” and instant messaging and social networking are all getting tied together in interesting ways—and regardless of what happens where, I’m getting updated real-time if I want to be, or have the ability to pick up the conversation(s) at my leisure. Often this is happening on my phone, since I always have it with me, but when I’m at a traditional computer I’m seeing the updates there, too. And really, it doesn’t matter if I get the update on my phone or my computer or on Google Glass (if that becomes a thing) or on whatever comes after Google Glass (if Glass ends up just being a precursor to something); regardless of the medium the message is the same, and I have the same ability to continue the conversation.

One concept that I loved about Wave is still missing, which is that the distinction between an IM conversation and an email conversation and a document is forced upon us by the technologies, whereas Wave promised to make those distinctions irrelevant. I still feel that way, but what I missed in Wave was the social networking aspect; more and more of our communications in the modern world happen over social networking rather than over email or IM. So although I still feel that the distinctions between documents and chats and messages and emails and comments may someday go away, it’s probably too early to tell what the final outcome will look like. In the meantime, this ability to tie them together is a good step in the direction of getting us there, and I’ll continue to use a blog for longer, more permanent messages (like this one), and something like Google+ for shorter but still permanent messages, and something like Hangouts for more ephemeral conversations.

This is a very Google-centric mindset because I’m not on Facebook, but those who are on Facebook will have similar decisions to make with their communications, and many, many people will have much more complex decisions because they’re using both Google and Facebook technologies so even after they’ve made their decisions they’ll have to make further decisions about whether and where to cross-post. And none of this even takes into account Twitter—a huge omission, I fully admit.

And every time I have to make a decision as to which product to use for a particular message and it’s a hard decision to make, I’ll smile inwardly, knowing that we’re getting closer to our goal.