Review of Google Wave as a scholarly HTML editor

November 17th, 2009 by jose


Peter Sefton wrote a series of posts on wave. He has published on Scholarly HTML so I read attentively what he has to say. What follows is some highlights of his posts, and my thinking about where things are going. There are at least four things that bother me about wave –as it is today:

1- It’s not really HTML

I thought that waves being XML documents would be a good thing because it’d separate content and formatting. But it seems that they made some strange decisions about how to represent formatting with “very tenuous relationship to HTML”. For example

While there is talk of ‘XML documents’ in the whitepapers etc, a wave document in the current implementation is apparently a series of lines of text. All formatting and what you might think of as structure, such as whether something is a heading or not, is considered an annotation.

This is important right now because the only way to get the resulting doc is to dump the html to a file, or ‘copy-paste’. So, in a way, losing formatting like this would completely incapacitate wave for serious paper writing. I have had some success just copy-pasting and keeping most formatting, but I cannot risk to write a long paper and lose all formatting. Which won’t happen, because…

2- It doesn’t work too well for long, structured documents

Having a large blip for the entire paper with many people editing it seems to perform poorly. And having each person write their own blip-per-paragraph is not very pretty. It’s in fact distracting. I don’t discard wave’s usability to go through the roof once people start making things with it (robots). But it all depends on how well the API is designed. For example, following the mailing list, it seems that there’s no easy way to reorder blips programatically. This sounds like bad design to me.

3- It doesn’t integrate well with citation tools

It may be a matter of time before all the bibliographic tools we like get integrated. For example, Igor does offer some basic integration but this is far from satisfactory.

4-Formatting is simplistic

Wave has no table support. Figures are also not what you would expect, even for a notetaker. Captions are not implemented, nor footnotes. finally, LaTeXy is not the most convenient way to get equations done, I’m afraid, and it doesn’t go both ways.

Clearly, the content/form separation in wave is not designed for academic collaboration, and it shows. The questions is whether we can make this happen by writing robots[1]. Whether wave is the open platform that would make academic writing 2.0 happen.

Wave is just a tool. Why does this matter so much?

You may think that thinking too much about tools is counterproductive. But the way things are, it looks like tools are more and more important. Right now, we are stuck with the paper metaphor. Authors can produce pdfs, and publishers too. A publisher may make a prettier one, but that adds little value. We are equaled in terms of tools. However, publishers such as Elsevier want to get away from the paper metaphor (which is a good thing). As a consequence, authors will not be able to produce HTML as rich as the publisher’s. Here, the difference in tools matter.

In this case, Wave does look like an easy way to craft an interactive experience with little effort. So, even if you discard wave’s usefulness as a collaboration tool, it has quite a lot of value.

But it could very well be that wave doesn’t fulfill its promise. Microsoft Office 2010 offers similar functionality (close to real time edits). And of course, word has unparalleled features such as track changes, integration with endNote, etc. It could be that people adopt this new way of collaborative writing in real time without using wave. What worries me is that openOffice looks seriously left behind now. If it looks like a half-assed implementation of word 2003 features now, imagine when real-time hits mainstream. You need a serious server infrastructure to support that, which is possible for Google or MS, but not for a –smallish- open source foundation. I hope they find a way to jump in the train before it’s too late. Wave has a lot potential, because it is open. If openOffice could support that wave protocol, it could be a big achievement for open source.

If you have had any experience drafting a long doc in wave, please post it in the comments.

[1] For more on this, see my .

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7 Responses to “Review of Google Wave as a scholarly HTML editor”

  1. benNo Gravatar Says:

    I’ve actually been thinking about academic writing on wave too. I think what’s needed is a decent bibtex implementation, but that’s fairly difficult to do right now. Hopefully wave will improve to make this kind of writing easier, as it offers a lot of advantages for collaboration.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    One quick update:
    From Ian Mulvany, who went to who went to the talks Larks and Stephanie gave in EU:
    “They are working on wave gardening, where you can merge, split, concatenate, and generally de-threat the blips in a wave. This is going to be awesome of they can get both the protocol and UX right.”

    This is really good news!

  3. Arjun MuralidharanNo Gravatar Says:

    While I would embrace better tools for the “layman” scholar to enhance collaboration, I still prefer rather low-tech mtehods: A good versioning system and plain latex flatfiles.

    The idea of pool-writing papers with wave is probably askew from wave’s initial purpose, and while the concept is interesting – I think there is space for a dedicated tool in this area.

    We use Microsoft Sharepoint at school and it is – I must admit – the best collobaroation software I have seen. It’s versioning and document management are extremely sophisticated.

    But again, it’s not free, and since we scholars don’t tend to swim in money…

  4. Writing Papers in Google Wave | The Productive Student Says:

    [...] Review of Google Wave as a scholarly HTML editor [...]

  5. John MichaelNo Gravatar Says:

    This was an interesting article, and I agree with most of what you said. It’ll be awhile before wave becomes mainstream (if it does at all). Skype is just starting to get widely adapted, but that’s just because many computers didn’t come with a mic or even a webcam, but now, most laptops come with both of those.

    From an academic prospective, I don’t know why anyone would use Google Wave to edit a document though.

  6. Pavan KNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi Jose,

    I read this a while ago and have to say nicely written. Also good point about Open Office being left behind but if and when Wave starts to reach a mass market will office have any chance to catch up?

    I saw a Scobleizer presentation on an Adobe collaborative suite solution, but no integration of said features in (for example) In Design. What was their solution called? Surely they are well placed to disrupt things.

    Arjun – interesting you mention SharePoint and it’s cost. We have yet to see a migration to open web based solutions. Also interesting John mentions skype scaling only now but what will increase adoption of wave and who will be the early / late mass market? People who want to collaborate professionally and edit documents live, but for free? Who are they? SME’s? Schools?

    Last point – I disagree with one point about Design not adding value. Design is everything, so InDesign adds immense value in the ability to manipulate a document, and Acrobat Pro is sufficient in commenting on a beautifully presented pdf document. I am happy with Adobe and it was worth every penny. I will never use Microsoft Word again (if I can help it) and really hope Open Office catch up quick or someone else will.

  7. Lars Tong StrömbergNo Gravatar Says:

    Interesting point of views.

    As for myself, I have seen Wave mostly as a mail tool and have waited for Google to get serious about it and take it beyond preview. Wondering if issues like the ones you mention are what they are working on to make it ready for a full launch (and then convert Gmail to Wave too)??

    Open Office indeed in need of a remake.

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