Catching the wave

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A few weeks ago I received a Google Wave invite. Unlike Gmail, which I considered a must-have, I didn’t go beating down the doors of colleagues and peers in search of an invite. How much do I need another collaboration tool? Currently I use SharePoint (more on that later), Confluence (enterprise wiki), Twitter, Yammer, FriendFeed, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Skype. And let’s not forget the old standbys — email, list servers, web forums, SMS, and RSS. TechCrunch has a pretty evenhanded review of Google Wave.

The challenge of adopting a new communication platform is the chicken and the egg conundrum of Metcalf’s Law — the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users. Every time I asked someone about Wave, I pretty much received the same answer, “It looks really cool, but I don’t have an account and I’m not sure what I’d do with it.” One never knows with Google if the justification for the paucity of beta invites is due to infrastructure limitations or the desire to simply create hype through scarcity. A lot of people sitting on a technology not knowing what do do with it is far less desirable than having thousands of folks wanting to get their hands on it — not fully aware that they have no idea what to do with it. Get those early adopters who really want to figure it out using and talking about your technology and it will eventually come together. It’s worked for Google to great effect in the past.

Everyone wants better collaboration tools. In the media production space, Avid’s collaborative capabilities have been our differentiation for years from Media Composer to Unity to Interplay. So this is an area near and dear to my heart and paycheck. It behooves me to get to know Wave.

At the most cursory level, it’s possible to justify my initial skepticism about the value of Wave each time I log in. Of my 500+ Google contacts, only 12 (2.5%) have Wave accounts, and 25% of those I invited. But it’s become apparent that in the professional space Metcalf’s Law is only part of the formula for network valuations. Let’s use Twitter as an example. It’s such a massive network that the first thing a new user does is narrow the list of tweets he sees. It’s not just how many people are on the network, but how many people saying something worth hearing. It’s also about context. Sometimes I want to read tweets about video editing, sometimes I want to read about the Boston Red Sox. Rarely do I not have a preference. Twitter became much more valuable to me after it introduced lists. All the people who talk about media production in one list, sports fans in another, and family members in a third. Here is where Google excels — all its tools are great at filtering content. Wave is no exception, even in its embryonic state.

Getting back to that 2.5% of my contacts on Google Wave. While a dozen people do not a valid network make, I note that these people are all thought leaders in their space — my cousin the professor with the DBA, the director at Avid working on cloud computing and SaaS deployments, the executive director of AICE, faculty at USC. These are precisely the people who will create a network that I will value. Google’s onto something, again.

So here’s the challenge for would-be collaborators. Managing the Wave. Back in the 1990s Lotus was incredibly successful getting large enterprises to deploy Notes. Everyone could collaborate, and everyone did. Most installations were not well managed, and databases sprouted like mushrooms. In fact my first gig in IT consulting was working with a team at a Fortune 500 company to migrate thousands of databases into a single intranet. The project ran out of money before it ran out of Notes databases.

To quote Stan Lee: With great power comes great responsibility. Misuse of SharePoint has already begun infecting corporate knowledge management the way Notes did. Google Wave with its looser structure has exponentially more potential to wreak havoc. As the TechCrunch review notes, it’s imperative IT and knowledge management pros get ahead of this Wave, and third parties such as Avid build the right hooks into these platforms to make them useful instead of overwhelming.

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