It’s Just Fancy Talk

The Google Wave chatting tool is too complicated for its own good.

Google Wave

Here’s a little story to show just how thoroughly Google’s long-awaited chatting tool, called Google Wave, can kill your mood to chat: The other day, I was “waving” with Zach Frechette, the editor of GOOD magazine. Naturally, we were talking about the new site’s merits and flaws. As we went back and forth, I had a tiny epiphany. I wanted to tell Zach that I thought Wave would have a much tougher time catching on than Twitter, because it was asking so much more of its users. The trouble is, everything you type into Wave is transmitted live, in real time—every keystroke was getting sent to Zach just as I hit it. This made me too self-conscious to get my thoughts across.

Like Wave, Twitter was also “trying to teach people a new way to communicate,” I wrote to Zach. “But its main”—and here I paused, searching my brain for the right word. I wanted to say that Twitter took off because it was drop-dead simple. So did I want to say, “but its main function was simplicity”? No, that was wrong. How about goal—”its main goal was simplicity”? Hmm, better, but still not quite right. The pause grew; the word that I wanted—in retrospect, feature—wasn’t coming to me, and I began to reconsider the sentence entirely. Maybe I should just delete what I’d written and say, “Twitter works because it’s simple.” But I couldn’t do that, because Zach was watching me. He could see me struggling right now—he could see that I’d gotten myself stuck in a textual cul-de-sac and that I was desperately searching for a way out without looking foolish. Now I saw Zach beginning to type: “Don’t let the live-typing get you down!” The game was up; what was the point of making a point now? I ended my thought clumsily and then resolved never to attempt to say anything very deep on Wave.

Chatting on Wave is like talking to an overcurious mind reader. On a conventional IM, you only see what other people say once they hit Enter. (True, the IM program will tell your partner whether or not you’re typing, but this is too little information to get embarrassed about.) On Wave, every misspelling, half-formed sentence, and ill-advised stab at sarcasm is transmitted instantly to the other person. This behavior is so corrosive to normal conversation that you’d think it was some kind of bug. In fact, it’s a feature—indeed, it’s one of the Wave team’s proudest accomplishments. When Google first unveiled Wave this spring, the program’s inventors hailed real-time typing as a way to mimic real-life conversations online. Because you can see what your chat partner is trying to say before she’s finished saying it, you can start replying immediately, making conversations much faster, Wave’s proponents argue. In practice, though, live typing either slows conversations to a crawl or renders them anodyne. Because you’ve got to second-guess every word you put down, you find yourself agonizing over the keyboard. It’s hell—and, so far, Wave has offered no way to turn it off. (The program is still in an invitation-only preview mode, so it’s possible they’ll fix this soon.)

Live-typing illustrates Wave’s bigger problem: In many cases, the software creates new headaches by attempting to fix aspects of online communication that don’t need fixing. What is Wave? Its designers say that it’s an effort to modernize e-mail by adding features from IM, wikis, and other tools for collaborating in the Web age. Improving e-mail is a worthy goal: There’s too much of it, a lot of the mail we get is useless (even the stuff that’s not spam), and threads involving more than two or three people can get wildly, incomprehensibly out of hand.

But Wave tries to fix these problems by replacing e-mail with an entirely alien interface that isn’t very intuitive and that introduces new problems of its own. You pretty much have to watch one of the Wave team’s instructional videos in order to learn how to do the simplest things—send a message, reply to a message, add more people to your message, etc. You’ve even got to learn a new nomenclature: In Wave, messages are called waves, which are themselves composed of smaller elements called blips. There’s also another class of message called pings, which are meant to be more urgent than waves—though once you’re done with a ping, it turns into a wave. Got that?

And that doesn’t even get to Wave’s more celebrated bells and whistles: You can add widgets—videos, maps, polls, Sudoku, and a lot more—to your conversations. You can hold threaded conversations (so your responses to someone’s particular point are nested under just that message) and also go back and edit or correct other people’s messages. You can “play back” an entire conversation, seeing each message appear in sequence—kind of like watching a recording of the screen as you were chatting. But that’s not all—not by a long shot! Indeed, Wave is so packed with features of marginal utility it’s easy to forget it was invented by Google. Here was a company that once prided itself on simplicity; Wave is so bloated it could have come from Microsoft.

Even worse, it’s not immediately clear why you should take the time to learn all this stuff. In my few days using Wave, I came across a few cases in which the software might come in handy. If I wanted to brainstorm an idea with a half-dozen or so coworkers, it’s possible that collaborating on Wave might be more fruitful than working through e-mail, IM, or a conference call. (In Wave, everyone could add to and amend lists synchronously—though, of course, you can also do that using Google Docs, too.) But waves with multiple people can get just as messy as a wild e-mail threads—more than a few I took part in devolved into chaos. This might have been predicted, considering that there’s nothing about the software that can prevent people’s inherent tendency to go off-topic. In the same way, Wave does nothing for e-mail overload. In just the few days I’ve had an account, I’ve already started getting roped into long chains of messages with people I didn’t know. Were Wave to become as popular as e-mail, it would surely succumb to the same noise that now crowds our inboxes.

However inscrutable it is, I’ll grant that Wave is a feat of Web engineering. Google has produced the most desktop-app-like Web program I’ve ever used: It loads quickly, is pretty responsive to user commands, and hardly ever crashes. (The few hiccups I noticed were excusable, considering that it’s still in the early development phase.) The Wave team is certainly ambitious. Alas, their efforts too often seem to have no other purpose than ambition itself.