Exactly 14 months ago, shortly after its introduction, I outlined a concept for how Google Wave could be used by filmmakers (which I recommend reading before you go on). The post was widely read, and even Google featured the idea as a potential use case scenario for its fledgling product. After snagging a (relatively) early beta spot for the service, I witnessed how filmmakers were attempting to make use of it. I should emphasize the word attempting, because most users were completely lost on how to implement the technology. Yesterday, Google announced it will stop developing the platform, and has only promised to support their version of Wave through the end of 2010. Google Wave is dead. So is the Google Wave for filmmakers concept dead?
Why Wave Died
Tech pundits will break this story down from every direction, but I can offer a few armchair talking points on the subject of Wave’s demise. The first and most important is that Google Wave requires a new workflow but looks and feels like so many other, older workflows. It feels like a document but looks like e-mail, and functions like neither. It has all the downsides of chat, commenting and bulletin board engines with none of the benefits of modern browsing and design. Basically, when greeted with either a blank or a populated wave, every user approaches adding to it differently, which leads not only to confusion, but clunky performance. Worse still, nearly every basic use case for Google Wave is superseded by a number of other web services.
But it’s not all bad. There is a reason why, when Google introduced Wave at their I/O Conference in 2009, the web community at large became overwhelmed with excitement, and it’s not just because of the company’s impressive track record. Its promise was to bring e-mail into the 21st century by redesigning it from the ground up. This promise became something of an albatross almost immediately; it’s the reason so many people were confused when they opened up a wave. Still, it’s the best effort there has been yet to organize the clunky, unwieldy nature of message, reply, forward, and so on. Google has developed some amazing technologies in Wave that will most likely end up elsewhere, such as the ability to view live text edits from multiple collaborators. For a company that thrives on innovation, Wave is nothing but a win for Google.
In the end, and it is the end, no one could find a killer use for the product. The filmmakers whose waves I’ve participated in usually just let the thing turn into a comment forum, basically a glorified blog post. Some have tried to collaborate on screenplays, but Wave is not ready for documents that long. Furthermore, even though Wave cleverly tracks changes, it feels like destructive editing, and that’s a big deal to users. If you think you can’t get a change back, you won’t make a change.
Why “Wave” for Filmmakers isn’t Dead
Wave’s possibilities turned out to be far more interesting than its actual uses. The key to the software was text manipulation and tracking among a number of users. You could edit text collaboratively, and then embed that information on a website. You could also bring various strands of data (photos, videos) into a wave. The concept of one central, editable document is what opened up the Google Wave for Filmmakers concept for me. That central document, in my example an XML document, is the key to the idea. The hope, originally, was that Google Wave would flourish and grow, allowing for the kinds of hooks I mentioned. It hasn’t, and it won’t.
Centralizing film editing is not a new idea. Apple and Avid and other third party hardware makers offer a number of solutions for getting multiple editors, producers, writers and other creatives on the same page. However, today, these technologies are extremely limited, usually requiring involved parties to be in the same building. From a creative standpoint, this is an idea that has worked for nearly a hundred years, since the advent of the vertically integrated studio. Clearly, filmmakers demand a new level of mobility and collaboration today. Why be tied to a single location? Why be tied to a finite team even? Why not have people perform simple tasks in your process to move things forward?
Technologically, we are at least a decade away from bringing all the strands of moviemaking together in an intuitive manner. Video is one of the last strongholds of supercomputing since it requires incredibly robust hardware. For most consumer uses, desktop all-in-ones and laptop computers suffice for nearly any task, including video editing. It wasn’t always that way. Ten years ago, working with video on a laptop was something of a novelty, today it’s become quite common, though not for processor heavy tasks like transcoding or compositing. Computers are getting smaller and faster, and many basic tasks have all but obliterated the need for hardware altogether. Look at word processing, e-mail, basic photo editing, playlist creation, and even document storage as just a few examples of cloud ubiquity where once hardware reigned. It is not a matter of whether video editing will make it to the cloud, but when.
For now, creators will keep on creating. Like anything else, these are just tools. Google Wave was a bold move in the right direction towards central collaboration. There is no way to look at this as a failure for Google, or for any of us. The conversation has shifted. Now we need to take the momentum that Google Wave kicked off and the tools it will leave behind to keep the conversation up so that when the technology falls in line, we will be there to adopt filmmaking methodologies that move us forward.