Getting Started with Google Wave – An Early Look

A lot of fuss has been made about the fact that email was originally designed 40 year ago, that it no longer works in our fast paced world, and that we need a change. It’s funny — go back just a couple hundred years ago and most people would have considered a 40 year old technology to be very modern. But the twentieth century obliterated that mentality.

And now, here we are. Yes, sometimes communication is hard. Sometimes it is scattered. And sometimes it’s easier to use a tool other than email. Now Google is doing their best to fix the problem and Google Wave is their attempt to do just that. But can it change the way we communicate online?

Only time will tell, but for now we can look at the application itself and see what it’s made of.

What is Google Wave?

Well, let’s start by taking a look at what Wave is:

  • It is (like) an email client.
  • It can be used as a wiki.
  • It is an instant messaging client.
  • It can be used as a file sharing tool.
  • It’s a web application.
  • It’s open — wide open.

If Wave is going to change the ‘game’, then it’s likely that the last bullet point will make the difference. Like Twitter, if Wave gains traction, developers from around the globe will hook into the service and the resulting ecosystem has the potential for diversity. But, as I mentioned above, only time will tell if that happens.

There were many who claimed Twitter wouldn’t go anywhere and we’ve seen how that turned out. But for every Twitter there are a dozen similar services laying facedown in a ditch somewhere in Silicon Valley.

In the world of web apps, ”If you build it, they will come” simply isn’t always how things work out.

But I digress. Okay, here’s what Wave is not:

  • It isn’t Twitter — yet.
  • It isn’t your blog (unless your happy with the Blogger look).
  • And despite reports to the contrary, it won’t make your coffee in the morning. Sad, I know.

The truth is, we don’t yet know just what Wave will end up replacing, if anything.


Some of the jargon can be confusing.

Some of the jargon can be confusing.

A topic that also needs to be discussed is the naming conventions used. It can become confusing to discuss the application with all the different terms that are thrown around. Some of the concepts in Wave are similar to Gmail or other email clients, but some are not.

Here’s a short list to add some clarity:

  • Wave – the application itself (uppercase).
  • wave – a conversation, chat, message, gallery, map … whatever you put in to Wave to share with others is in a wave (lowercase).
  • Blips – separate entries in a wave.
  • Panels – the main compenents of the application.
  • Tags – just like they sound, but are functionally the same as Gmail labels.
  • Invite – actually, Wave calls these nominations as well and they are trickling out at this point. Patience is required if you’re waiting.

Getting Started

Once you’ve been blessed with an invite and log in, it can be a bit confusing what to do next. Personally, when I try a new app or service for the first time, the very first thing I do is check out the settings or preferences. In Wave, there is no Settings option in the upper right hand corner like every other Google service out there.

All the Settings are contained in a wave.

All the Settings are contained in a wave, not in the usual location.

And that’s when I realized that Wave is really quite different — it is a whole new approach for Google.

There is good news — once you get your invite, Google fills your Wave inbox with a few waves that will help you get acclimated with the application. The best way to familiarize yourself with the app is to read through (and watch) all of the intro waves. Overall, I think Google did a good job to get people started with the application, supplying waves that illustrate how the app works.

One of those waves is the Settings wave. It’s labelled ”Under Construction” at this point, but you get the idea where the Wave team was going with this. All content within Wave is contained in a wave, whether it’s your settings, your extensions or all your communication with others.

The only items not in a wave are your contacts. And on that subject, one other thing to do immediately is use your invites. You’ll want to make sure that Contacts panel isn’t empty. Since there are only so many invites issued right now, it can be hard to try the application out when you have no one to talk to.

And once you’ve invited some colleagues, it takes a while for the invites to get to them.

The Interface

The interface is broken down into 4 main panels – Navigation, Contacts, Search and the Wave Panel.

The four components of Wave.

The four components of Wave.

Each of these can be minimized to the top of the screen, giving you a completely blank canvas for a new wave.

A clean canvas to work with.

A clean canvas to work with.

Once you have your various panels minimized, you have two options: 1) you can maximize them once again to the default position as seen in the first image above, or 2) you can click the arrow to temporarily drop them down over the window canvas (and whatever panel you may have maximized).

Keep your panels at the top while still viewing their contents.

Keep your panels at the top while still viewing their contents.

The entire approach they’ve taken is unique and took a little getting used to. But you can see how it would be helpful to focus in on a ‘conversation’ or a ‘document’.

Navigation Panel

Similar to Gmail.

Similar to Gmail.

The panel that gives most of the functionality is the Navigation panel. With it you can open and close the Search panel and control what the search panel is displaying. Like Gmail, the sidebar navigation items are really just searches and everything is labelled or tagged. That brings us to your organizational hierarchy.

Again, like Gmail, you can tag or label all of your waves with multiple values. You can then search for your tags and save your searches. This is exactly how labels work in Gmail, so Gmail users should have no trouble adjusting here.

However, unlike most other Google apps, Wave also allows you to create folders. You can even create sub-folders. As well,you can add colors to a folder, same as a saved search.

But they do differ in how they are displayed in the Search panel — waves displayed in a saved search will display the saved search name and color while waves moved to a folder will not.

The addition of folders, along with tags, allows you to structure Wave is a manner that suits you. Many people still prefer the folder approach over tagging and searching, so it’s nice to see that Wave offers you both options.

Search Panel

After using the application for a time, it becomes clear that the intended usage of this application is to extensively work from the search panel. Ever since Google expanded beyond merely a web search engine, this is how they have built their various services, so this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

And once you get in the habit, searching is a fast and easy way to get what you’re looking for.

Wave Panel

And finally, we have the wave panel, where you’ll do whatever it is you’ll do in the application. This is where you’ll carry on conversations, share documents, take meeting notes, create image galleries … you get the point.

Several aspects of the Wave panel are also unique as they move away from traditional UI approaches. Or perhaps expand on. The Playback feature is interesting, and from my usage, will be helpful when joining a larger wave later in the timeline.

Another piece of UI that caught my attention was the scrollbar. It can be clicked and dragged like any other scroll bar in an application. Or you can simply click on the arrows at either end to move a specified length — somewhat like a page up or down.

There are a few items that take some getting used to.

There are a few items that take some getting used to.

The last item worth mentioning is the wave tool bar. It contains all the items you can perform on a wave, such as moving waves to a folder, deleting a wave, replying to the wave, and marking as read or unread. Oddly enough, the options to tag a wave or attach a file are at the bottom of the Wave panel.

Overall, the Wave panel is similar to Gmail’s compose interface or the toolbar of Google Docs. If you’re familiar with Google’s applications, it will not take you long to get comfortable with Wave.

First Impressions

Overall, Wave seems like a perfectly good tool. The speed was fine and for the most part, my experience has been bug free. Keep in mind that for now, there are very few people using the application, but if anyone seems to get scaling right, it’s Google.

At this point, support for Safari seems behind Firefox and Chrome. There’s not a big difference, but I was not able to drag and drop waves into folders. Firefox, no problem. These are negligible issues that will most likely be addressed quickly.

Apart from that, there were some other signs that show this is a preview, not an app ready for public consumption. For example, the help documentation is not completely ready. Clicking one of the links in the help menu brought me here:

Still working out the kinks.

Some of the help is … less than helpful.

Google is still working out the kinks, but with a fairly stable first release, the overall performance of the application shows it has promise. The only question that remains is whether it will match the hype.

Where Now?

If you’ve been blessed with an invite — and have actually received it — then invite some more people and spend some time getting used to it. For now, reserve judgement about the value of the app — it would be premature to render at this point. It’s going to take time and use to discover how good this software is.

It makes sense to me that Google has taken this on — creating a central hub for all communication and making sure the data required sits on Google servers fits right in with their track record. I’m sure there are some privacy advocates out there right now who are shaking their heads and wondering why so many people drink from the Google fountain of Kool-Aid.

But if the application can do what is was built to do — improve communication — then the users will come in droves, regardless of any privacy concerns.

More Invites

And another congratulations is in order for @travesse, who was the recipient of yesterday’s invite. I’ll be giving out another one later today — leave a comment below and mention what you think of the privacy aspects of Google Wave for a chance to win. And thanks to everyone for reading this site — your support means a lot.