Business Report

Google's Ultra-Real-Time Messaging Tool Lives On

The company halted its work on Wave, but aspects of its radical approach to communication have been reincarnated for business collaboration.

When Google Wave launched in 2009, the company suggested the program was a “new category” of communication because it combined the virtues of e-mail, instant messaging, and methods for sharing pictures, links, and other documents. Among its other features, Wave went a step beyond IM by letting people see what their message partners were writing as they typed it. That meant that the people on the receiving end of your messages would see characters appear onscreen even before you had finished formulating a sentence. It was a radical approach. I tried Wave myself and found it very distracting to watch people type, delete, retype, and misspell their thoughts. People I had persuaded to try it with me never signed in again, unsure as to how it was useful. We weren’t alone in our confusion: last year, Google announced it would stop developing Wave.

And yet, Google Wave lives on—in business software.

Google allowed other companies to incorporate some of the programming code behind Wave, and that’s what Novell, a maker of business software, did for its new collaboration tool, Novell Vibe Cloud. The program, which is in beta now and is due to launch fully this spring with a free version and a paid subscription service for businesses, offers the real-time “co-editing” function of Wave, along with file sharing and other messaging functions, in an interface similar to Google Wave’s. Additionally, Cloud incorporates something called Google Federation, a set of code that could allow different online collaboration tools to work together (in the same way that different e-mail addresses can exchange e-mails). But why would this succeed where Google Wave didn’t?

Wendy Steinle, director of product marketing for Novell’s collaborative solutions, says Vibe Cloud has a more specific purpose than Google Wave did: to help people collaborate within a company and between companies.

“By being particularly targeted toward workplaces, it makes a lot more sense,” she says. “People don’t need to real-time collaborate as much for social messaging as they do brainstorming for business ideas.”

Social networking alone won’t help companies become more productive, she says. Enterprise programs that only mimic Twitter or Facebook updates—“micromessages”—don’t give employees the tools to develop a short exchange into a fuller idea or business plan. In contrast, Novell’s Vibe Cloud “is designed so you can start a conversation as a short micromessage … [and] grow that message into a full document or strategy,” she says.

Thousands of companies are using the beta version of Novell’s program, Steinle says. Her own team has used Vibe Cloud and its real-time messaging function for meetings and brainstorming. Even though that means “your process for getting work done is definitely more visible to the people you’re working with,” she says, overall the function is useful. “People are much more engaged and present,” she contends. “If you see notes being taken before your eyes, you want to participate in that,” says Steinle. “The record is occurring live, and you can correct records on the fly right there.”

Judd Antin, a research scientist at Yahoo who studies the psychology of online collaboration, questions whether real-time co-editing is really helpful. “Maybe that harms collaboration, because you don’t have a chance to construct yourself and your sentence,” he says. “One of the beautiful things about the ability to hit return [to send your message] is that you get to backtrack and take out that awful thing that you probably shouldn’t say.”

But Steinle says real-time tools better reflect how people’s brains work “and help us come together the way our thoughts do, flowing seamlessly from one thing to the next.”

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Next in this Business Report

Collaboration Tools

Powerful software and widespread Internet connectivity are making it easier than ever for people to work together no matter where they happen to be. Throughout March in Business Impact, Technology Review will look at the latest tools for collaboration within and between organizations. We’ll analyze why some technology-enabled collaborations work and why others don’t. We’ll explain why some collaboration tools have failed to prove useful to the employees meant to benefit from them. We’ll present case studies, profiles, and interviews that help you understand how to make the people in your organization more collaborative—and more productive.

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