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Lessons from Google Wave

It was announced yesterday (on August 4th) that Google would no longer develop Google Wave. In other words, R.I.P. Google Wave. Let’s have a look at some of the reasons why Wave suffered this fate and what Google might have learned from it.

Google Wave was an island

There was no easy nor logical way to incorporate Wave into your ordinary workflow. If you weren’t opening wave.google.com on your browser, you were not “on the wave”. The most critical thing was that even though it looked almost exactly like a webmail client, and your user account had the form of username@googlewave.com, there was no email integration whatsoever. It’s bad enough that you couldn’t subscribe to any Wave updates to your inbox (later this feature was added without much fanfare), but the fact that a company hosting one of the largest email services in the world goes and assigns users pseudo email addresses you can’t send messages to is something that still boggles my mind. Ok, I understand that Google Wave was supposed to be something beyond email, but even emails could be printed on paper. How about some backward compatibility, eh?

Google Wave did not solve a specific problem

Most people just couldn’t quite figure out what exactly they were supposed to use Wave for. Pretty much everybody saw the potential of it for something useful, but were they able to picture themselves as a user in a specific use case where Wave was a natural fit? Let’s face it: there’s no point in releasing a technology demo and expect people to start using it straight away. What in fact was missing was the real product. Wave gave us the tools, but it would have probably taken an ecosystem around it to turn these tools into products that people could utilise for solving a specific problem (which Google did try to encourage through it’s API and federation protocol offering). Yes, collaboration challenges tend to be universal, but that doesn’t mean you could simply throw technology at them and expect people to take it from there.

Google Wave was not social

Given that the beta program with its invitation only approach initially stirred up quite a lot of interest towards the service, with invitations sold on eBay for $70, the approach quickly turned on its head. Let’s say that there were several groups of people in your company that were experimenting with Wave. How could you identify these particular people that were potential co-wavers and collaborators? Not through the service you wouldn’t. It happened on the corridors and water coolers, or in long email threads (sigh) circulating around the office. Come to think of it, for a company revolving around the concept of search, Google’s products can be incredibly hard to find. Just compare the findability of users and information on Twitter vs. Google Buzz.

Google Wave was developed by… Google

Huh? Why is that a bad thing? Well, let me explain. Google knows us all, but we still have no effective way of knowing each other through Google. This lack of the social dimension is perhaps the most significant barrier currently limiting Google’s growth beyond “just” indexing all the world’s data. 10 years ago that must have seemed like the ultimate goal you could have within the scope of Internet. Ever since the ‘net has evolved from a collection of documents to a platform for human interaction, that goal no longer sounds like the Holy Grail. Wave, just like Buzz or Orkut, relies on tapping into the social behaviour between people, not just a lone swordsman searching for a piece of information in the sea of data. Designing services to this new breed of customers requires a new way of thinking, which Google is only in the process of learning. Read this excellent post for further analysis on why Google cannot build social applications.

Just because the “surf’s up” for Wave, doesn’t mean the game’s over for Google’s initiative to change how people collaborate on information online. On the contrary: because they keep on trying, they can eventually succeed. Obviously there’s no other path for the corporation that’s built its product success on the concept of perpetual beta. I’ll hold up my board and wait for the next big wave.

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