Home Google Wave: Our First Hands-On Impressions

Google Wave: Our First Hands-On Impressions

When Google Wave made its public debut last week, it created quite a stir, but without being able to get a hands-on look at the product, it was quite hard to really grasp the implications of what Google was trying to do. Today, we got access to Wave, and after testing it for a while, we can confidently say that Google is indeed on to something. The developer sandbox version we have access to is still a bit rough around the edges, and quite a few functions are still unavailable.

Just a Preview – Lots More to Come

During our test this afternoon, we also got to chat with Jens and Lars Rasmussen, who gave the first official demo last week. They stressed that the team is currently fully focused on getting the developer preview for third-party developers right, so everything we say here about the UI is still in flux and will definitely change before the final release.

Chances are that you have already seen some screenshots or seen the demo on YouTube (more than 1.5 million people have seen it already), but here is a short video of what a wave looks like in action.

What is Wave?

One thing we immediately noticed is that it takes a little bit to get used to how Wave works. The first thing new users will probably notice is that Wave always shows you exactly what your contacts are typing in real-time (if you ever used the talk command in UNIX, you know what this feels like). Even when adding a map, you can see how someone scrolls around it to mark a spot, for example. After using it for a while, we have come to think as Wave as real-time email with a big dose of IM built-in, but even this only just describes a small part of what Wave can do.

Giving it a Spin

As you have probably seen in the videos and screenshots, Wave features a sidebar on the left and two large columns on the right. Overall, the look (but not the functionality) is somewhat reminiscent of the layout you would expect from an email client or a three-pane feed reader.

The sidebar features the functions for navigation, as well as your contacts. The larger column on the left is basically your inbox. By default, this column shows recently active conversations, or, depending on what you want to look at, a history of archived waves, waves marked as spam (there is, of course, no spam on Wave yet), or all the waves initiated by you.

The most interesting column, though, is the one on the right, because this is where you type your messages. Here, you can initiate new messages and waves, but you can also easily respond to messages, add new contacts to a wave, and send private messages to select users. One nice feature is that you can pick a specific word or phrase and respond to that, instead of the whole message.

Doing the Wave

As you are typing a message, a number of new icons appear at the top of the column. Currently, the most interesting one here is the Google widget, which allows you to very easily search Google and add a link to the wave. You can also search YouTube and Google Images and embed videos and pictures with just one click. The Wave team will surely expand these offerings (there is already a link to search Google Books, though it is currently not active, yet). Another option here is to embed a map that you can extend by setting place markers and drawing lines.

To add a picture or any other kind of file to a wave, you just have to drag and drop it onto a wave from your desktop. Wave also features a nice, lightbox-style photo viewer that allows you to browse through all the images in a wave.

In the long term, all of these functions will be expanded by third-party developers who will probably come up with exciting new ways to make use of Wave. Given that the open APIs will allow developers to take Wave into new directions, and also implement its functionality in other places, we are very excited to hear that the team will open up Wave to more developers later this week.

According to the Rasmussen brothers, only a small number of third-party developers have access to Google Wave at this point. However, by the end of the week, this number should go up to almost 2000 – and judging from what we have heard and read, there is a lot of interest in the developer community and we will definitely see a lot of activity in this area in the next few months.

Not just Real-Time Chat

It should also be noted that the real-time chat is really only one aspect of Wave. There is no reason why the chat couldn’t be used as an internal micro-blogging tool, for example. As Jens Rasmussen pointed out to us, it is this mix of uses in different scenarios that may be the most exciting aspect of Wave. While the real-time aspects of Wave are currently at the forefront of what people have been excited about, there is no reason why users couldn’t use it as a replacement for regular email as well – or why they couldn’t switch from one mode to another at will.

A Few More Thoughts

  • Presence will be indicated by a green dot on users’ avatars – very much like IM.
  • One thing that got to us was that hitting the Enter key will just give you a new line, but to finish a message, you have to hit Shift+Enter, which takes a bit of getting used to.
  • At this point, long waves with a lot of concurrent users can get a bit confusing. While the messages are timestamped, it would be great if there were some stronger visual clues as to which messages are new. You can easily get to new messages by hitting the space bar, but even then, sometimes it is still a bit hard to see what messages you are actually looking at.
  • Unlike Gmail, Wave actually features traditional folders and you can filter out messages by keywords. In addition, you can also tag waves.
  • It would be nice if you could turn the real-time aspect of Wave off and only have your messages appear in a Wave after it was completed.
  • The playback function that was prominently featured in the demo last week is interesting, but we are not sure how useful it will be in daily use.
  • Currently, the automatic spell-checker on Wave is offline, so we couldn’t test it, but we’ll update this post once it works again.
  • We tested Wave in Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer – as expected, it didn’t work in IE but worked perfectly fine in all the other browsers.

Will Wave Revolutionize EMail?

The big question on everybody’s mind, though, is if Google and the Wave team can hold true to their promise of ‘reinventing email for the 21st century.’ What we have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg, but we can already envision how this could replace our internal chat room here at RWW, and how it could revolutionize the way employees in a company communicate. Wave definitely takes some getting used to, but once you get into the flow of things, regular email suddenly feels stale and slow.

Like any great tool, Wave gives its users a lot of flexibility and never gets in your way. If you want a Wave to look more like a document instead of a conversation, Wave will work just as well as when you just want to use it as a chat room.

It’s still too early to argue about whether Wave can or will ever replace email (it’s only a developer preview at this point after all). However, after using it for a while we were already wishing that we could add more of our contacts to our list so that it could become our default messaging system. Until then, though, we are back to Gmail and IM.

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