Thoughts on Google Wave

Friday, June 5, 2009

The peeps at Montauk last summer.

“What would email look like if we set out to invent it today?”

I’ve been watching the Google Wave video over the past couple of days. It’s a bit long, but they give a very complete overview of the service. Even though there are a million “tech du jour” blogs and I normally prefer to stay away from that kind of stuff on this blog, Wave struck me so I might as well toss out a few quick thoughts on the matter. So:

1. Yeah, e-mail certainly feels like it could use some modernizing — it hasn’t changed in any meaningful way in, like, forever. At least since I’ve been using it (circa 1994). It’s still “to,” “from,” “cc,” “subject” — and replies still stack inline, although now most e-mail clients will render replied-to text in different colors or something. Progress!

2. Wave is cool. It looks nice. I want to try it out. I like clever web interfaces. And I have a lot of respect for the team that put it together. As alluded to above, I wish more people would put thought into improving how e-mail works. Because doing so seems insanely challenging, especially given how deeply ingrained e-mail is into our concept of how the net works. Getting people to use a new service for the same task is difficult enough — cf. Firefox vs. Internet Explorer. For people my age and older, using e-mail is almost a reflex. Sending e-mails. Checking my e-mail. I do these almost subconsciously. They are cognitively low-overhead tasks for me. To get me to move to something conceptually different would require changing some rather deep wiring (although, yes — presumably parts of Wave will make their way into Gmail). (And I admit that younger generations may have a very different relationship to e-mail than my generation does. Maybe I’m already a crotchety old man. Sweet. Get off my lawn.)

3. There is almost nothing new to Wave. Except the cool presentation. (Which is, yes, a rather big exception.) You can do this now: if your e-mail client renders the web properly. I like the live collaboration inside Wave and I love that slider that lets you replay a Wave over time. But can’t dozens of websites do essentially what Wave is demoed as doing (minus some interface jazz)? Can’t I go set up a poll somewhere and link to it in the e-mail? Can’t I link to a map? Or photos? Or embed them? Widget-like? Why doesn’t e-mail support HTML well enough that I can send a frame that contains the contents of a live webpage that can be whatever I want? It could be a realtime Wave-like app. A Google map. Chess. A poll. A video. Whack-a-kitty. Etc.

Instead of creating this third paradigm between the web and e-mail, we need to realize that the web and e-mail are actually the same thing conceptually — they’re just displayed inside different windows (or, hell, the same window if you’re using webmail). And especially with all of this social API stuff floating around, the concept of e-mail being private communication and the web being public communication is breaking down. Or, rather, has broken down.

4. I don’t like Gmail. Personal preference, sure, but I prefer desktop apps to internet ones when given the option. I find Gmail to be visually cluttered and putting ads on my private e-mails — are you fucking kidding me? No. I prefer Apple Mail. So I’m predisposed to being very much not interested in web-based “e-mail-like” communications technologies. I only really use Google for maps, search, and ads (I use AdSense on some of my sites). I’m not a huge fan of their collaborative tools.

When I tweeted about this [1] [2] (sigh — “tweet” is the worst verb since “blog”), I asked “And where’s Apple on this?” I meant: Could Apple’s Mail team please get off of their cans and put some thought into Apple Mail so we could do things like this? I mean, I love being able to send e-mails of travel photos that look like they’ve been thumbtacked to bamboo — but let’s think bigger, here. Please. Screw Google, just use the existing e-mail protocol in some creative way to make embedding live web content into an e-mail simple. It’s a UI problem, mostly. And then to copy Google’s “Polly” poll tool, for example, you could whip up a polling widget (if one doesn’t exist that works well) in, like, an afternoon. With basic HTML and Javascript. And maybe a little social API or something to hook into address books. You have millions of developers who could make little widgety things and blow all of this Wave crap out of the water in no time.

5. I had a dream about ZZTop last night. Surely that’s not healthy.

Anyway. In a week this topic will seem quaint and all of my opinions will be wrong, I’m sure.