Can Google Wave replace email?

November 25, 2009: 6:00 AM ET

Electronic mail is so 1996. Will "Waving" replace it?

Email is antiquated. We need a better way to get things done online than hitting "reply all" to long message chains and sending constantly updated attachments.

Google aims to make waves in email. Image: Google.

Google (GOOG) is attempting to solve this program with a new service called Google Wave. Announced at a developers' conference last May, the software application and computing platform blends email, instant messaging and online collaboration. If it gains traction, it could be disruptive, particularly in the enterprise market—but the chances for that may be slim.

Here's how Google says Wave works: You create a wave and add people to it. Wave members can add their own text, photos and feeds. They can also edit the wave. Everyone on the wave can view changes being made in real time. Through a playback feature, you can also rewind the wave and look at how it has evolved.

If you're having trouble wrapping your mind around what exactly Google Wave is, you're not alone.  Google opened the service to a limited number of users in September. I am not in this group, which includes a sampling of software developers and early technology adopters, but I spoke to a half-dozen folks who are trying it, and all report that it's a little hard to understand.

That may be Google's largest hurdle with this service as it will be more useful with more users.

Google Wave is inherently a social program. For it to succeed, it will need to gain critical mass among users. And to do this, the service must attract mainstream developers willing to sink resources into building out software programs that link into the system. The company has plans to launch an app store at some point. Several prominent businesses are already experimenting with it. Novell (NOVL) has an upcoming product called Novel Pulse that makes real-time collaboration more suitable for corporate users by providing companies the tools to limit groups and visibility and structure the type of collaboration that is possible. SAP (SAP) also has an application for Google Wave called Gravity in the works.

Masters of search but not social stuff

But Google has a few strikes against it.Though YouTube is beginning to see some success, the company hasn't mastered anything social yet. Remember Orkut, it's early social network? Now even the Brazilian audience that once kept it going is migrating over to Facebook. OpenSocial, Google's attempt to create common standards for development on social networks, has had a quiet evolution, in part because the most popular social network, Facebook, didn't embrace it.

Recently Google's Joe Kraus, who has led the efforts, moved over to become a partner in Google Ventures. Also, the company hasn't impressed large enterprise customers recently with its "Word-killer," Google Docs. There have been several lengthy outages in recent months during high usage times. And Google tries new things often; many are eventually left for dead. (Remember Notebook? Dodgeball? Jaiku?)

Perhaps Google's biggest problem is that new communication platforms are rarely imposed from the top down. Rather,  they evolve with users' demands. Facebook is a great example. In 2005, when college kids first started logging on, the idea of posting anything to a "wall" or a moving public stream of information struck mainstream Internet users as absurd. But Facebook evolved as users joined and asked for new services. Now only troglodytes refrain from creating a profile, and about half of Facebook's 300 million users log on every day to view their stream of status updates, photos and links.

Google understands the need for this type of organic innovation, and that's why the company has launched Google Wave to a select few to experiment with before the service goes live. But users report it may be too different from anything they've seen before to catch on. And Google isn't the only company trying to replace email, either. From small start-ups like Drop.io, which lets users communicate with each other and share documents in real time, to Facebook itself, plenty of companies are experimenting with better ways to get things done. It's not yet clear whether Google will be able to ride this wave.

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About This Author
Jessi Hempel
Jessi Hempel
Senior Writer, Fortune

Jessi Hempel is a New York-based technology writer for Fortune. She has written extensively about digital media, online advertising and social networking. Before joining Fortune in July 2007, Hempel worked at BusinessWeek and most recently served as their innovation department editor. Hempel is a graduate of Brown University and received a Masters in Journalism from The University of California at Berkeley.

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