What comes after Google Wave?

Google announced last week that they will stop further development of Google Wave, and essentially shut down the service by the end of the year. Some of the more exciting parts of Wave will be reused in other Google products or – since many parts of Google Wave have been made available under an Open Source license, in products by other companies. But the announcement is an admission that the adoption by users and developers had not been what Google had hoped for with this very ambitious project.

Google Wave was first announced at Google I/O in May 2009, and I had a Google Wave account since July 2009 thanks to being invited to the SciFoo conference (where every attendee got one of those then still rare Wave invites). Like others, I saw the tremendous potential to improve on existing tools for researchers to collaborate. But after 12 months, Google Wave hasn't replaced email as communication tool in at least some of my collaborations. Many people have pointed out the reasons for the lack of user adoption of Google Wave. I want to focus on something else: Google Wave tried to solve a problem that is very relevant to scientists, and we still don't have a solution for that problem.

Email has become the primary tool for many scientists to collaborate with colleagues both within the same institution, and between different institutions. Despite this popularity, email and the typical workflow around it has several significant shortcomings:

Email is not good in tracking longer conversations between more than two people. Even though email messages can be grouped together, it quickly becomes difficult to follow the discussion. And it is even more complicated for those joining the discussion later.

Email is not good in sharing documents. Sending large documents repeatedly back and forth is not only a waste of network bandwidth and limited email storage capacities, but is also not a very productive way to collaboratively work on a longer document, as it quickly becomes difficult to merge the different document versions together.

Word processors are not good tools to write scientific documents. Traditional word processors such as Microsoft Word or LaTeX care too much about document formatting, and still approach a document primarily as something an individual user edits on a single computer.

Maybe user uptake for Google Wave was low because the approach to tackle these problems was too radical. Many other, less radical tools try to solve the same problems, including mailing lists, wikis, social bookmarking sites such as CiteULike, collaborative writing tools such as Google Docs, and project management tools such as Basecamp.

Where do we go from here? Because most of the technology behind Google Wave has been made available, we could continue to use and develop Google Wave and Wave extensions for scientists. But that is a very risky strategy that not many people would follow. We can also wait for new tools that help scientists collaborate, and there interesting products announced every few months. For the time being I will continue trying to convince my colleagues to use some of the existing tools instead of email where appropriate, something that is surprisingly difficult.

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8 Responses to What comes after Google Wave?

  1. Frank Norman says:

    Martin – Thanks for these insights. It is always frustrating when a solution to a big problem comes along but fails to be adopted.
    What has surprised me is that when I tried to explain the advantages of Wave to some scientists, they told me that they are very happy just emailing documents to and fro, and they like the control that this gives them – they always have the final say over what goes in the document.
    I think, too, that many people are comfortable now with MS Word – it works for them however imperfect it may be – and they will not change unless a new system is really easy to switch to and use. Changing the tools we use for writing is a big step to take.

  2. Maxine Clarke says:

    Thanks for the update, Martin. Although I could not personally find a use for Google Wave (probably because nobody I interact with regularly online uses it), I am sorry to see it go because I remember how excited people were about it when invitations were precious resources. I also remember with fondness your excellent demonstration of the service at science online 2009.
    I agree with you that email is the primary means of collaboration and communication, from my perspective, and it has some of the frustrations you mention. I quite like using wikis but I do find, as I think you are saying too in your post, that colleagues are reluctant to use them. Often people paste into emails what they have also put into a shared wiki to be sure everyone reads them. One problem with wikis is access rights, especially when they have to be secure – people can’t be bothered to remember passwords or log in details. So you have to keep reminding them each time they access the wiki concerned. Another problem (related?) is that very senior people in my experience tend not to learn how to use new web tools, etc, so this does not set a very good example for everyone. Perhaps this time round the science online conference could have a competition to get a senior scientists or other influential person to see how many web apps they could learn to use, and use regularly, as an example to us all!

  3. Mike Fowler says:

    Interesting take, Martin.
    I noticed when Google announced that Wave had sunk, they essentially shifted the blame onto the users. Essentially saying:

    It’s you who haven’t taken up our incredible service. You should be ashamed of yourselves

    I remember sitting through the introduction videos they put on the Wave, thinking “If this is the best you can do, I’m not really going to invest all the extra effort required to find out what Wave can really do to improve my working and collaborating conditions”.
    After reading your post here, I realised that Google have been very successful at taking other, existing ideas, and making them more widely available/accessible. e.g., other search engines existed before Google became King; the same is true with other e-mail providers, word processors, web hosts, online maps, online photo sharing… Google seem to take these and improve them in some small, yet important manner that encourages users to shift to the Google product.
    They don’t seem to have sold this rather more innovative product (Wave) to the relevant user community though. Perhaps they should have thought more carefully why users didn’t take Wave to heart and explained that.

  4. Claudia Koltzenburg says:

    @Martin, quite a few fair points about non-early adopters, also in general, really must check out more fully where I lag behind my peers, ah yes, OpenID – and what are my hurdles there… hm, and also where I might be an earlybird, most likely collaborative writing on Wikis
    @Frank, “Changing the tools we use for writing is a big step to take.” yepp, and I have a little pop-up that helps me watch my own habits every day – interesting journey, often takes me to plain LaTeX these days 😉
    @Maxine, good point about setting examples, could you elaborate on which group of “very senior people” you are thinking about, senior by age, by rank, by influence, by …? and I do like your idea re science online

  5. Neil Withers says:

    With an editorial team based in London, Boston and Tokyo, we used Google Wave from time to time and I quite liked it.
    Our main use was along the lines of “1 person writes something (eg an editorial) and puts it on Wave, then the other 4 add their comments/changes”. The advantages over circulating a word document was that everyone can see each other’s changes, and thus agree/disagree.
    For doing just that, it was great. For everything else I tried – like the extra bells and whistles (voting buttons etc) – it was just a bit clunky. The other downside was still having to continually email each other to let you know you’d done something – but the alerts have kind of fixed that.
    The day, early on, when 4 of us were logged in and editing the same Wave from 4 different locations was…freaky! And it rapidly degenerated into ‘I can see what you’re doing! I’m logging off!’.
    I hope it’ll just stay in the Google background and won’t disappear – like Notebooks has, even though support has been withdrawn after Docs was released.

  6. Maxine Clarke says:

    Sounds spooky, Neil – I can just imagine editing a journal like that ;-).
    I’m not offering any hostages to fortune, but I think that if leaders at institutions of any kind enthusiastically adopted the good from the plethora of innovations on offer, in an evangelical way, this might do a lot to encourage others to try/follow.

  7. Martin Fenner says:

    Sorry for my late response to your excellent comments, I’m currently enjoying different kinds of waves at a beach in Turkey.
    For me Google Wave is a good example of me (and many other people) getting overly excited about social media, but forgetting that most people are happy with what they use with little interest to change anything. There are many other examples, and the Science Online London Conference in a few weeks will have a session based on the recently released RIN report “If we build it, will they come”. I’m looking forward to what we can learn from failed (or underperforming) social media tools for scientists.

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