The swell of hype has been building in the geek community over Google Wave for a while and a couple of week’s ago the next stage of the launch happened – 100,000 received invites to have a play and see the platform for themselves.

It’s early days (it’s only in preview, not even Beta yet) but having had a couple of Waves now I thought I would blog some initial thoughts. I’m not going to try and explain in detail what Wave is or does – there is a introduction video you can watch.  It’s been variously described as what email would be if it had been invented now and a collaboration tool bringing together functionality from email. instant messaging, shared documents and multi-media resources across the Internets.

It may turn out to be all or none of the above but time and a significant number of users, and therefore innovation, needs to happen before the verdict is returned. For now it is the latest geek toy to emerge from the Google stable and it is packed with potential.

At the moment it is mainly a live chat interface. Multiple-participant conversations where you can watch the others type and mispell and corrent themselves in real-time. A bit like ICQ, IRC or Netmeeting back in the day. You can add a map and collaborate on sticking pins in it, you can take a vote or you can search and link stuff. Well, sort of. The last bit doesn’t seem to be hooked into the ‘real’ Google search yet so the results are not great.

You can play back a Wave so you can watch the discussion (and spelling mistakes) unfold again and that appears to be about your lot at the moment. Eventually Google Apps and Docs will be integrated which will bring in some potentially powerful collaboration functionality.

But we can’t wait for that, we need to test this thing now and see what use we can get from it as individuals and for local government / public sector.  So, Alan Coulson set about using it as his primary way of covering the goings on of the SocITM 2009 conference.  A few of us jumped on to watch and Wave with him while also keeping an eye on that other favourite back channel for events – the Twitter hash tag (#socitm09 for this event).

The primary difference at the moment is that Wave is a private chat room with invited individuals and Twitter is open to all. As Wave goes forward this won’t necessarily be the case. Al did a stirling job of covering the conference in great detail on Wave as well as adding links in where he could to slideshows posted online. Not only that but he engaged with the rest of us who were in the Wave but not at the conference.

There were several discussions which took place in the Wave sometimes at the same time that Al was documenting a presentation. This is where the playback feature will come in handy as if these activities happen too far apart in the Wave you simply can’t keep up. So how else does it differ? Well, in this example the coverage on Wave was from one person whereas Twitter is a variety. Where that falls down on Twitter is that often multiple tweets contain the same ‘soundbite’ and engaging with the tweeter is harder than in the direct interface of Wave.

But the potential is there – Sharon O’Dea and I discussed how powerful it could be as a collaborative real-time reporting tool for events such as 7/7. The story could certainly unfold graphically and comprehensively on a public Wave. As Sharon said this could be the evolution of the way Wikipedia was used on 7/7. As she also pointed out you can’t sustain or develop a platform just to come into it’s own for massive but occasional events.

The potential is also there for use by local government. Once you overcome issues such as Wave needing a Chrome plug-in to work in IE and pretty up to date browsers with public sector handcuffed to IE6 or that many council IT departments block access to Google products beyond search. But leaving those issues aside there could be some pretty amazing ways local government could use Wave.

Michele Ide-Smith mused on how it could be used in a planning meeting and certainly as a consultation tool then it has, you guessed it, potential. The ability for multiple participants to work together in debate while also adding in relevant resources could really move digital engagement forward.

Something needs to happen first though, namely digital inclusion. Wave is resource hungry and as well as needing the latest browser it also needs a fast, stable connection and that is something that much of Britain is lacking at the moment. The potential of Wave isn’t going to be fulfilled as a local government communication, collaboration or consultation platform without the digital infrastructure to support and sustain it.

What Wave also needs is time. It has the familiarity of being part of the Google family but once it is up and running it will be a vast and pretty complicated system if used fully. At the moment that makes it a great toy for geeks and those who are comfortable with online platforms but that isn’t the vast majority of people who want to engage with a council. In time that will change as digital natives grow up and move into the demographic who need to use more council services. Immediately though, Wave may be too busy for what most people want to do.

It may also not be accessible. It’s hard to tell how much of this potential would be realised using assistive technologies. With queries over usability and accessibility, uncertainty over the system requirements and connection needed Wave has a lot to do to prove itself as a valuable addition to the way local government is communicating online (but let’s not forget it is only a preview version at the moment so all these questions and more may be answered as the full product is developed and deployed).

On a personal level I am really excited about the potential of Wave. And there is one thing it does better than any other platform for me – when it throws an error message it does so by giving you a Firefly / Serenity quote. It’s a nice little nod to Wave being the way people communicate in the Firefly ‘verse and has proved, for me, to be the quickest way to turn the frustration of an error into something, well, shiny.

Professionally, I think right now we need to explore further and assess as the functionality is added and more people invited in. We need to be aware of the potential and watch this system develop so as a sector we can meet the needs of our citizens, now or in the future, through it.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]