Google Should Use Google Wave Against Facebook

Help me Google; you're my only hopeGoogle should use Google Wave against Facebook.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. I will be the first to say I was unimpressed by Google Wave from a user point of view. I should note Google Wave was pitched as an email alternative, and it’s not great at that job. The technical perspective was pretty impressive. It is however a potentially killer distributed social media network. It will take slight retooling to adjust it for the task, but it is already better suited to compete against Facebook than against email.

It’s actually a pretty good alternative if the UI were better tuned to the task. Allow me to explain:

It’s close feature wise

I won’t go into point after point, but Google Wave can carry out many of the same things that Facebook can. It’s a good way to communicate in an open or closed fashion and each wave can already be granular in terms of privacy. It can be used to share much more than text. It can be used for the purposes of photos or video. It can be extended by third parties utilizing its API. It already has chat support. It’s built on XMPP. It can easily parody Facebook in almost every way already. It can be extended to do what it can’t today. Profiles are the biggest thing it lacks. I suspect that wouldn’t take much to add in. I’m thinking an extendable XMPP vCard from the technical side.

It’s distributed

Google Wave is hosted by Google, but it’s also an open protocol and Google’s releasing chunks of their implementation. That means they can partner with other large companies (AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple etc.) who can federate and let their users all instantly be part of one huge social network. Users already have “friends” via their address books for email. Importing from other sources is easy, just look how Facebook did it. If Google got AOL, Yahoo, or Microsoft to partner join them they would overnight reach a huge chunk of the Internet population via their e-mail users.

For those who are going to try and argue that Facebook users don’t have email addresses, yes they do. It’s a primary method of notifying users of things other than SMS and is required to signup for an account.

This also means you can host yourself, or use the provider of your choice. Your not subject to Facebook deciding your fate, or any one company.

It would be more private

One of the primary gripes against Facebook is its privacy measures are inadequate. Facebook has motives to force people to be more public. There’s little incentive to help you stay private, since the alternatives are slim. With Google Wave being hosted by several providers they will need to give you more control, or you will just move to a provider that will give you the controls you want. Just like with email. By using your own domain to point to a provider you would have portability of your identity. Once again Google Wave by design is more granular than Facebook. It’s based already around the concept of sharing data. What Google Wave really needs is a robust profile implementation with granular permissions and the ability to bucket contacts to make permissions more manageable.

Despite its UI and marketing pitch, it’s a surprisingly close Facebook competitor.

It would be a healthier ecosystem

Like I mentioned before, Google Wave has a fairly decent API already. What is great about it is that providers would be pressured to provide a robust enough API so that the killer apps exist on their platform. Again, no more reliance on a single source. By standardizing at least a subset of the API developers can target multiple providers and implementors. It also means providers will need to allow for more granular controls over privacy settings for third-party apps or once again, people will be switching.

Google wins too – keeps them in the center of the universe

Google likes to be the center of things, especially information. By doing this Google would still be able to organize a users information in meaningful ways for them, which is really what Google Wave’s main goal for Google is. Google has a major win. Anyone a user trusts to index their information can do so. If the user is paranoid, they can keep totally private. If you really want to be private you could run it on your own private server. If you don’t trust Google, you can avoid them but still join the party.

It would be more permanent

Facebook is still not guaranteed to be around in 10 years. Email however is overwhelmingly likely to still be around. Just like newsgroups and IRC still have their place, even if they aren’t as mainstream anymore. Why? Because they are all open standards and not tied to one companies profitability. I can still find and read old newsgroup posts from over 20 years ago. Feel that confident about Twitter? Facebook? foursquare? How much time do you invest in them?

What about dispora or _______?

diaspora is a clever effort and a noble one getting a lot of press today. It really is. But I think it’s to complex for real widespread adoption, especially in the era of easy to use web apps. It’s true that users flocked to P2P apps despite complexity but that’s because of no alternatives with less overhead. I’d give most of these efforts a 5% chance of any real success.

StarWars is copyright Lucasfilm

Google Wave

Google Wave is a pretty impressive demo, and the fact that they are open sourcing most of it, documenting the protocol and enabling federation is a major win, but I’m hesitant to think it will replace email anytime soon, if ever.

John Gruber has a very interesting observation:

Communication systems that succeed are usually conceptually simple: the telegraph, the telephone, fax, email, IM, Twitter. So color me skeptical regarding Wave’s prospects.

A very valid point. Popular technical communication systems solve one communications problem. Attempts to solve more than one so far have failed. A good example is the video phone we were supposed to have in every home 20 years ago. Even today with cheap web cams, video and telephony is rare to combine and is seen as somewhat of a novelty.

Wave also has other limitations such as people who use Wave interacting with people who don’t. Most of the “wow” in Wave requires interacting with other Wave users. Pretty cool if everyone you communicate with is using Wave, but no so much if many/most of your contacts aren’t using Wave. How many people only communicate with others using the same mail provider? Google users never email Yahoo and Microsoft users?

Will Wave be adopted? For one thing it will change the business model of many email providers. Wave will be significantly more resource intensive than basic webmail and POP3 access (or IMAP for the rare few). One could argue spam has made Email somewhat resource intensive, but Email has more slack regarding expected latency since it’s not “real time”. Email is often given away with internet access, web hosting, or just as a freebie because providers know that email keeps users coming back and it’s extremely low cost to provide. It also retains users. For example lots of non-AOL users keep their AOL account just for the email.

Then there’s the issue of ownership. Group editing a wave sure sounds like fun, as it’s so wiki-like. All that collaboration is also a real boost for productivity, but it does have it’s downsides. Who owns that data? Obviously companies are going to be a bit concerned about this aspect. Email has the benefit of being rather concrete. Send, receive. Those are the only two functions supported. Replies are merely a copy of a previously received email with an appended response. Ad-hoc collaboration seems to create a new twist. The courts have also seen their share of email. Wave means new precedents and interpretation in the law. How many companies you think want to test that pool?

One thing the Google team said virtually nothing about was security.

Email was never designed to be secure. SMTP servers initially had no authentication anyone could send using any SMTP server. Auth was bolted on later on, and is still problematic (receive before send anyone?). Presumably since Wave is built on top of XMPP SSL will be we the encryption mechanism. But that’s only on the transport level between federated servers. What about end to end? Is an S/MIME like method supported? SSL to the user is a secure transport layer but doesn’t protect from interception by either server. Since it’s text you could use PGP and send a message, though you loose a lot of functionality and grace.

SPF is a hack for email origin verification. It works OK where it’s supported, but not everyone supports it from a provider or user perspective making it a pretty poor solution. Will Wave be utilizing EV-SSL? How about supporting verification from the actual user? S/MIME signature? Verifying identity is critical to being a successor to email. Both verifying the organization, and the user at the organization.

Lastly spam. How does Wave attempt to mitigate the spam problem? Sounds like one of the possibilities is a whitelist which doesn’t work in email, and is unlikely to work in a Wave. Unsolicited emails are good in many non-spammy situations. For example a friend emailing from a new address or another business discussing a partnership. Sure you can prompt each time to add to whitelist, but then the process itself becomes spam. Do you wish to add “buy-viagra-at-thebiggestviagrastoreintheworld.com@yahoo.com” to your whitelist? You get the picture. I’m sure there will be traditional filtering as well, but that still doesn’t solve the problem.

I think Wave has a chance, but it’s not a very high chance of success. There are a lot of barriers. Email is still the ultimate API for it’s ease of use and implementation. Email didn’t survive for so long because there was nobody willing to build something better. Email survived because it became the standard and worked in virtually all situations. It was simple enough for users and implementers alike.

I think it’s much more likely that concepts from Wave will end up elsewhere, rather than Wave replace email. Because of that, I’d call it a disruptive innovation.