Google Wave’s unproductive email metaphors

Wall of water

OK, I took a few hours off from playing with Google Wave yesterday. I read all my comments on the post I wrote Thursday about Google Wave, many of which were very ascerbic toward me.

I took the day off and said “what if they are right?” and “is Google Wave a really great way to collaborate with other people?”

On coming back to Google Wave with fresh eyes tonight and even after collaborating with people on a few things my answer is “no, they are not right” and “no, Google Wave is even less productive than email.”

But, first, over on TechCrunch and Mashable I discovered this cute little video that showed off what Google Wave is and how it could be used. In that video you’ll learn that Google Wave is like email but “modernized.” Well, OK, let’s see how the email metaphor holds up and see if Google Wave has actually made us more productive, shall we?

I’ve been studying how teams collaborate for quite some time. I’ve worked at small companies, big ones like NEC and Microsoft, and medium ones like Rackspace.

I’ve interviewed lots of productivity experts over the years, including the guy who wrote “Getting Things Done.”

Plus I’ve been doing public collaboration for more than 20 years too.

Here’s what I’ve learned: email sucks.

Email is probably the most unproductive tool you use. Even though it is the most familiar. Here’s some reasons why:

1. Anyone can send you email. That leads to spam. But worse, that spam, or that funny email from Aunt Sue, gets placed on top of the email from your wife or your boss. Or, the request from a customer that could lead to a huge contract. (A coworker of mine once screwed up an account because such an email was missed).

2. Email in your account is only available to you. So, let’s say you are pitching Toyota tomorrow for a new kind of headlight assembly. You might be talking with your boss about that and maybe an engineer or two who made the product you’re going to pitch. But, is there a chance that another coworker could get involved because he might know something about Toyota without being directly asked to get involved? No. Yet if you were talking in a more open toolset like Salesforce, Yammer, SocialText, or Sharepoint that other guy might actually see you’re talking about something he has knowledge about. I’ve seen this happen over and over because I talk about my projects in public. Heck, that’s exactly how this interview with LaVar Burton got done (it really is a good one too, thanks to Michael Sean Wright who I met online and who took over interviewing duties while I missed the Twitter Conference).

3. Email is hard to search, because of limited metadata and because you can’t search across company, just your own inbox.

4. Email gets turned off when you leave a company. At NEC I had more than a gig of email. It was deleted the day I left there. As it should be. But, the guy who replaced me sure could have used a lot of the knowledge I built up in that email store. Once I left, though, it was gone forever from both people inside the company and outside.

5. Email doesn’t tell you much about the person. Xobni and Gist and other companies are trying to change that, so you can see stuff about who they are, what they’ve done online, etc. This helps you to prioritize your email.

6. Prioritizing your email is difficult at best. Tools like ClearContext try to help by studying your answering patterns.

But, to repeat myself from the other day, Google Wave adds many of these unproductive problems and then lays another few unproductive things on top. What are those?

1. Chat. Live chat. You know, the kind where you can see me typing my characters. Why is this unproductive? Because your eye gets drawn to anything that moves on screen. This is a HUGE attention distractor. That means less productivity for you. And it’s not easy to turn off (I’ve tried to find it). Cure? Only open Wave once in a while, never leave it open. That is a demonstration that it’s even worse than email.

2. Social networking. The social networking features here are far worse than Twitter’s or Facebook’s. Why? No bio. No real names. No real way to manage them and put them into groups. I’d really like to ONLY see Rackspace employees when I sign into Google Wave. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet and that should be the FIRST thing that a collaboration tool like this lets you do. It’s inconsistent too. In Contacts at bottom left, full names aren’t used, but if you click “+” and add someone to a wave there you’ll see full names. Consistency people!

3. Imperfect affordances. There’s a trash can on my screen in Google Wave. Yet I haven’t figured out how to delete anything or why it’s there. Drag and drop? Doesn’t work. Right click? No “trash” or “delete.” Up on the toolbar? Nope, no trash. Now I’m sure someone will call me an idiot for not figuring it out, but I’m making a point here. Stuff here doesn’t work the same way it does on your desktop, or even in your email.

4. They take an email metaphor but they threw out the good parts. I can’t figure out how to BCC someone, for instance. That’s something that lots of us use to make sure that our bosses are kept up to date on projects without including them in the conversation. Oh, yes, I’m sure there’s a way to do it, but in Gmail it’s in your face. In Google Wave? Can’t find it.

5. No clear integration into Google Docs and Spreadsheets, which is where a lot of us are already doing collaboration. Now I know why we need SocialWok. To join all these things together. But why wasn’t that done in Wave?

6. It’s sssssssssllllllllloooooooooowwwwwwww. Sorry, when I’m collaborating with other people I want everything to be snappy fast. Even if you think I’m an idiot on every other point this one will really piss you off. Yes, I know, it’s not beta, but on the other hand first impressions matter and if this thing is so slow now imagine when it gets millions of people onto it.

7. The most powerful part of Google Wave is the bots and extensions that are possible to it, but if you are looking for a well thought out “store” where you can acquire those, like Apple’s iPhone has, give it up. You’ll have to find these on your own (I’m getting a ton BECAUSE I opened up my wave to everyone and now people are asking me “did you get this bot yet?” Of course opening up my wave to everyone has made the tool very unproductive in other ways).

8. Where did all these people come from? Just like with email, anyone can get access to your “inbox.” Including spammers and bad actors. All sorts of people have put stuff in my inbox already. This is NOT like other collaboration tools where I have to agree to see your stuff first (like Skype or other IM). The spam opportunities here are immense until we get a great social networking set of management tools. Worse, even Twitter lets you “block” people, which makes them invisible to your inbox. Not sure how to do that with Google Wave.

9. Waves are seemingly only open to other wave users. Not sure about that, but I can’t see a permalink on anything. Right now there’s an interesting wave going about technology. I don’t know how to link you to it or let you know where to find it. So, now I’ve got to figure out a new metaphor for telling you about things. I’m sure everything is URI/URL based but I can’t find them so I can’t share them with you. And people wonder why I blog. Hint: you can link to this blog easily by copying the URL. Everyone knows how to do that. Now try to do the same thing with a Wave. Wave seems like it wants lockin. IE, to really get a lot out of Wave you have to also use Wave all day long. Email isn’t like that. You can use any email client and you have lots of choices. Don’t like Gmail? Use Hotmail. Don’t like Hotmail? Use Yahoo mail. Don’t like those? Get your own pop server and do it yourself. Etc etc. Now try to do that with Wave. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

So, what will I use for collaboration instead?

1. With Rocky and Rob and Fran and Robert at Rackspace I will continue to use email to notify them of new projects and Google Docs and Spreadsheets to be the objects of those collaborations. Will Wave change this? No.
2. With them I will use Skype or Twitter DM’s for chit chatty stuff that doesn’t need to be kept around in case I get hit by a bus. Stuff like “where we going drinking when we get into San Antonio next?” Actually, this is already how I’m seeing people using Wave, but that means Wave is already a noise generator that is similar to Twitter. Not good. And since I can’t lock out everyone else (at least yet, or at least that I’ve figured out because the UI is so complicated).
3. For deep, project-starting stuff, we will use voice on Skype or just phones, which are really great because I can call from anywhere, not just where I have a fast Internet connection.
4. For group stuff that needs to be kept around and be searchable we’ll continue to use FriendFeed’s groups, which can be made private.
5. For document repository, we have a lot of choices, lots of which are better than Google Wave. Things like Dropbox or or JungleDisk. Or even old-school Sharepoint, which nearly every large company already has implemented.
6. Because of their openness and URL-centricity, real wikis are still more productive (and don’t have the bad email metaphor or the attention stealing character-by-character display). Can you imagine Wikipedia being done as a Wave? What an abortion that would be. There’s a ton of great wikis out there that are far more interesting for group collaboration than Wave is. Oh, and I bet that if you want that info to get into Microsoft’s Bing search engine that Wikis will beat Google Waves everytime!
7. Specific domain collaboration. Here I’m thinking of working with designers. Compare ConceptShare to Google Wave. ConceptShare will beat it every time.

Anyway, I could keep going.

Where will Wave prove interesting? I think some developer will find a new, simple, metaphor and will use Google Wave’s APIs to develop something interesting. SocialWok demonstrates just that is possible. But we haven’t seen that breakthrough idea yet and, so, for most of you Google Wave will just turn your collaborative life unproductive.

That’s OK, we do things that are unproductive all the time like play Farmville.

For geeks like me, wasting time on cool new technologies is lots of fun. But for most of the world?

It’s just wasting time. Good luck out there! Me? I think I’ll go do something really fun with my unproductive time left this weekend, like take my kids to watch real surfers in Santa Cruz, which is where I shot the photo above.