October 19th, 2009

Why can’t we figure out what Google Wave is good for?

Google Wave is… something. What it is, exactly, few people have been able to agree on. Google’s own PR about Google Wave is a frustratingly imbalanced information overload, their publicity effort centering around an 80 minute video of the developer preview at Google I/O, earlier this year, entirely burying their slick, short product demos.

Apple can routinely, in 80 minutes, tout its sales figures, announce three revolutionary consumer products, demo them, preview yet another devastatingly witty TV commercial starring an affable PC and bemused Mac, and have a surprise musical guest run through a number or two. Even Microsoft’s execs can put on a reasonably tight show when announcing new products. So how does Google’s new product announcement compare? It’s thorough and boring. It’s unrehearsed, heavily padded by presentation failures, presenter fumbles, and an excruciatingly long introduction by one of Google’s research unit executives.

The Wave video is a fine tech conference presentation. But it’s a lousy public product demonstration, and it’s the entirety of Google’s sales pitch. Sales pitches, product sheets, whitepapers, short demonstrations of single features are all missing from Wave’s PR. In their place is a long video of people fumbling with their demo equipment. I watched it in 20 minute chunks, because if this is The Future, The Future is awkward.

Wave is new, it’s exciting, it will replace email, instant messaging, wikis, and be the new unified front-end for everything from blogs to bug trackers, and Google seems to say that if you sit through this unedited speech you are worthy of it. (Those slick demos? Read on.) In a way, this preemptively blames the user for Not Getting It if they’re disinclined to watch. Google’s previous Big Idea product at least got a comic book.

What’s in the video? In the first twenty minutes, the front-end demo — what the average user will care about — is largely complete. Edit out the two presentation failures, presenter fumfuhs, and the executive’s appearance and there would be maybe ten minutes of raw video to make a proper demo out of. The remaining hour has some impressive demos, tech talk, and promising peeks into what’s to come, but the high points all come early.

It’s all great and good to know the full arsenal of capabilities. But maybe not all at once. Especially since the cues for what anyone can get out of it for themselves aren’t the purpose of the presentation. Google’s answer to end user questions amounts to, “When you use it, it will become useful,” which may be true but lacks any empathy for those who need a rationale besides curiosity to spend time on it. So to fill in the breach, the best what’s-in-it-for-me pieces are coming from elsewhere.

Judging Wave — and Google’s attitude toward the public — by this is a little unfair. But only a little: Wave’s homepage has a sign-in form, a tagline, a very cluttered screenshot, and the teaser, “Watch our looooong video”. The video page spares a hundred words to describe the product and links to two more videos, where you can watch short whiteboard talks about Wave’s concurrency control and natural language processing (shot outdoors, interrupted by boat horns). Shorter, yes, but not a great outreach to users.

The secret videos

What Google doesn’t mention until after you’ve gotten keys to the kingdom is that the quick demos were available all along. There’s an eight-minute video conducted by Wave’s project managers, not slick but considerably easier to digest, and even illustrates features not mentioned in the big announcement.

There are also extremely short walkthroughs of discrete tasks: Reading a wavestarting a new waveadding contactsplaying back waves, replying, moving panels, making a folder… GoogleVideo’s channel has a ton of these. Why they aren’t being used for Wave’s promotion is a mystery.

I have a Wave account of my own and will post impressions after experimenting further with friends and coworkers. So far, it takes little poking around or demo-watching to see how useful this is going to be. In the meanwhile, here’s a rapid-fire Wave video (some offensive language is used) which is meant as a joke but doubles as a respectable demo in its own right.