Getting Real (Close to) RealTime Collaboration




Dan Keldsen - Google Wave - ScreenshotThe second wave of Google Wave invites (outside of the development community it was initially released to in May/June) has been zipping across the web in the last 10 days – with the 8 invites I’d waved on twitter being snapped in minutes, and similar pleas for Wave invites lighting up the trending topics on Twitter et al.

The Collaborating Hordes

An additional 100,000+ of us have now had the chance to experiment with the Google Wave environment, and while my analysis is slightly more favorable than the initial view from June 1, 2009 (see IAM Alert: The Whimpering Google Wave) – it is clear that of any “early release” offering from Google, there is a lot more work to be done.

In fairness, this is billed as a “preview” and not “beta” (although also recall that Gmail only THIS year was stripped of it’s beta title, so Google is a bit loose with their release terminology), and has a much more limited set of people accessing the system than the typical Google offering.

As the continuing pounding and feedback of the invitees start to push the boundaries of what Google had expected, no doubt we’ll see refinement of the offering from many angles, including the ecosystem that springs up around Google Wave for open source and commercial offeirngs.

Usability Where Art Thou?

Google Search BoxIt’s ironic that for all of the fame of the “anti-clutter” interface of Google – the completely opposite approach of the search portals of the 90s such as Yahoo!, Excite et al – that the Google Wave environment is by far the most cluttered and complicated UI of any Google product.

In informal conversations with clients, and the many contacts I have both within the usability community and the software business world as a whole, I’ve heard nearly unanimously that Wave has the “most complicated and confusing interface” of any “2.0” solution in recent history.

Reinventing Portals, Collaboration and Realtime

While it’s still incredibly early in the life of Google Wave outside of the labs of the Southern Hemisphere team behind this work, they’re clearly hinting at a trend that has been gathering for some time.

I’m speaking of the convergence of:

  • Collaboration
  • Social interactions
  • Standards
  • Fast, browser-based tools
  • Mashups
  • Multimedia
  • Extendability and
  • The ability to flip between (near) realtime and asynchronous communication/distribution modes

When I was at Delphi Group (for 13 years) we had at one time the “Realtime Reality Seminar” – somewhere in the 1998-2000 timeframe. We were incredibly early in calling realtime as an important trend. Frankly, far ahead of the capabilities of the Net/Web at the time, and even for proprietary/non-browser-based solutions.

It’s about YOU and NOW

But what was obvious then AND now is that realtime, while incredibly useful, is not ALWAYS the mode we need. But being able to blur the line and chose the tool/modality that fits YOUR business need, rather than being hampered by what tools are capable of or pre-determined by anyone, whether that be Google, Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, or any other solution provider.

lockWhen you need realtime, you REALLY need it… right NOW. Collaboration in wikis for example, while a massive disruption to traditional collaboration tools (in a positive way), has suffered from an ability to do realtime collaboration, due to the natue of the single-threaded “lock” of the wiki mindset (that’s changing as well, more on that in a separate post).

Clearly the lack of realtime has not been the death of wikis or any other “2.0” toolset, but with the addition of realtime, we are finally getting close to having the ability to work in whatever we want, whenever we want it, all within a single environment.

It’s about SPEED in the Browser

The underlying guts of the Google Web Toolkit (GWT) which powers much of the snazziness and speed of the Wave interface is clearly gaining momentum, as other commercial software suppliers such as Traction Software (among others), begin to take advantage of the code investment of Google into high-performance Javascript and frameworks.

It’s about Expandability/Extensibility

The ability to add wavelets (ala widgets, portlets, applets, pick your meme from the past and drag it forward) to extend the general collaboration framework of Google Wave, or the ability to plug in “bots” as additional participants to conversations (to do automatic language translation, do lookups into systems, shorten URLs, etc.) both point to the benefits of standards and in Google not assuming that they can pre-determine exactly what people are going to want to collaborate on.

It’s about Social

The most obvious way to interact with someone on Google Wave is by what looks remarkably like an IM thread. My anecdotal evidence is that nearly everyone stumbles around being stuck in a reply chain before realizing you can edit other people’s comments – thus making it more like a real-time wiki than a discussion thread. (see the Usability comment – this seems to be a serious problem for adoption – although once the learning curve has passed, it’s not easily forgotten).

Yes, it’s about Collaboration

Collaboration is certainly the primary reason for Google Wave, but I believe we’ve only just begun to wrap our heads around what Collaboration online even means, as our tools have either been tremendously limiting, for geeks only (HTML warriors) or terribly expensive (e.g., traditional groupware and collaboration suites).

What are we collaborating ON?

Collaboration on a document? On a text-based project? On financials/spreadsheets? On revising business processes? On editing live video?

A larger world of options has opened up for collaboration via Wave, but getting over the hurdle of a text-based fixation for much of business content (what other reason is there for the vast amounts of e-mail and MS Word memo in any busines?), getting around to USEFUL outcomes of the ability to embed multimedia or apps of all kinds (remember the “death threat” style of desktop publishing when laser printers and web pages first came out?) while take some time, once we get over the thrill of the ability to embed all sorts of ridiculous content into our Waves. (see “Pulp Fiction Wave” [violent/questionable language – this is Pulp Fiction after all] and “Good Will Hunting Wave” for examples)

The Future is (Almost) Here

As science fiction writer William Gibson stated (ironically, typed, on a typewriter, at the time he’d coined the term cyberspace), “The Future is Already Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed.”

2008-2009 has brought an incredible amount of innovation in solutions, and adoption by businesses in all things 2.0 – whether Web 2.0 (witness the election) or Enterprise 2.0 (witness Google Wave, major feature jumps by SocialText, Traction Software, Jive, PBWorks, ThoughtFarmer, Spigit, and more).

But it seems to me that we are right on the precipice of taking that NEXT big jump into the future of collaboration – at far more sane price points, with a broader mix of TARGETED functionality, and in a direction that is less likely (but not guaranteed) to be tied to any single vendor by virtue of standards and open source activities such as OpenSocial, GWT, the Google Wave APIs, HTML 5, CSS, XML and more.

2010 and Beyond

2010 is going to be an interesting ride – are you doing your part to take advantage of the business/professional and personal possibilities?

If you’re pushing the boundaries forward, or dragging the laggards from behind, get in touch – we need to raise as much awarenes and action as possible if we’re going to make collective progress.

In the meantime, find me (among other places) on Google Wave as dan.keldsen[at]googlewave.com. No invites left, but always interested in seeing how YOU are using Google Wave and 2.0 tools in general, to take advantage of realtime as we all invent the next generation of the USE of collaborative tools.

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