Last week Google announced that they would finally suspend support for their once celebrated online productivity application “Wave.” Late in 2010, Google stunned developers and Wave users by announcing that they would no longer develop for the platform. They did promise that they would continue to host user generated Waves through “the end of the year.” That year lasted well into 2011 and Google will finally sunset Wave in April 2012 with a preliminary draw-down in January when current Waves will go read-only before Google shuts the service down completely in April.
This has been a strange and vexing story for a company that has avoided many of the very public product failures its biggest rivals have endured in both the court of public opinion and in the marketplace.
Despite the adulation that Wave received from some early adopters, my own experience with it revealed some of the problems with Google’s roll–out strategy. These same problems are potentially being mirrored now in Google’s current struggles with Google+.
In the autumn of 2009 I was invited to a birthday party for a friend. On the way to the party, I was asked to swing by the train station to pick up the brother of the woman who’s birthday was being celebrated. The brother is a game designer based in Portland and I had met him on one or two other occasions. Catching up on the ride from the station to the party, he soon and unexpectedly started evangelizing about a new Google service that was called Google Wave.
He claimed excitedly that Wave would revolutionize online interpersonal and small group communications. When I asked him to explain what that would look like, he tossed out words like: “real time”, “collaboration”, “conferencing” and at one point declared provocatively that Wave would replace both email and Facebook. The best part, he assured me, was that the code for the Wave API was going to be released to developers as an open source initiative.
I’m very bad at imagining what technologies might look like and my friend promised me that he would send me an invite to join the initial beta release so that I could see for myself. A week later he made true on his promise and soon I was approved to join Google Wave.
I logged in, opened the application and was asked to start a new Wave. I did so and then waited to see what would happen.
The options within Waves seemed pretty useful: Discussion, Meeting, Document, Blank Wave and something called a “Brainstorm.” I clicked through each option and gamely figured out the variations of each Wave’s WYSIWYG editor, drawing interface, synchronous comment spaces and discussion cascades. Since my Wave access was part of a limited number of invitees, I searched vainly for someone in my Google contacts to Wave with. I couldn’t find anyone except the acquaintance who invited me. I invited him and sent him a discussion message. After some more cursory exploration in the API and some fruitless online searching for tutorials, I closed that browser window and got on with my online life. I never received a reply from my one invitation and I didn’t open Google Wave again.
The following Spring, Google announced that it would no longer support Wave development in a terse message on their developer blog: “We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product.” That was it: little more than twelve months from start to finish.
Those twelve months were very busy for Google though. In that time, they released the much maligned Google Buzz and the much heralded Google Chrome releases for Mac OS X and Linux. Google was also in the midst of pushing improvements to their Android Mobile OS and Android Marketplace. With all that going on, the death of Google Wave seemed little more than a blip in Google’s unstoppable industrial juggernaut.
So why did Google abandon Wave? Answering that question points to some larger questions about both Goggle’s technical strategies and their business practises. The two biggest immediate problems confronting Wave were its release strategy and the nature of Google’s management structure. Perhaps the ultimate contributing factor in Wave’s demise was in its percieved value to Google corporate. At the end of the day, losing Wave was never going to be a big blow to Google’s bottom line and like many other innovative tech companies, Google learned much from the research, development and testing of the Wave project even though it never materialized as a popular consumer product.
From the outset, Wave was a different kind of product for Google. We often think of Google as being a very innovative company, and they often are, but their biggest product line successes have always been improvements on existing products: Google wasn’t the first search engine, Maps wasn’t the first search and direction tool online and Gmail wasn’t the first proprietary email management system. Wave was different. It was a new product in the marketplace.
Although it borrowed some if its concepts from existing online technologies, it was a new attempt to create a collaborative working space on the Internet that was easy to use, functional, synchronous, (almost) real time and free. It was also doing this as open source code and in a flavor of the XML programming language called XMPP and not exclusively in HTML 5 which when universally adopted will provide many of the capabilities of Wave in an object–oriented platform. In short, Wave was ahead of its time.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that Wave’s release strategy was problematic. This may be the biggest immediate contributing factor in Wave’s demise. Indeed, Google cited consumer disinterest as the primary reason for discontinuing the product, which begs the question of what Google was thinking in their release strategy to begin with. You would think that a tool that was geared towards collaboration would need many potential collaborators to work. Nonetheless, Google initially released very few invitations to join the service for the capabilities to become apparent and adopted by enough users to catch on. The biggest asset that Google had in Wave was its ability to create collaborative documents and conversations in real time with multiple participants. My experience with Wave was probably not all that uncommon. While I could see the potential in the tools that I was being shown, I couldn’t put them to use because I had no one to collaborate with on Wave. In the busy technical life of the modern professional, that meant that I couldn’t put it to work right away and integrate it into my communications habits. There is a short window for these relationships to form and the journey from “innovative” and “useful” to “lame” and “pointless” happens as much (or more) on an emotional level as it does on a rational level. The potential of Wave made it more likely that I would be pissed off by my inability to show it off or put it to use. Consequently, I was done with Wave within ten minutes of starting the application.
How Google could have gotten me back is an open question and one that would be hard to reverse engineer. They eventually did open up the invitation pool, but they failed to do any sort of comprehensive marketing strategy to let registered Wave users, who weren’t actively using the platform know that this was the case. Google Wave also inexplicably required a separate log-in from its all-purpose Gmail/Docs log-in. Not being able to comprehensively market the product to its current and potential users was another lost opportunity and probably contributed most to Wave’s demise.
The failure of Wave also points out another deeper challenge within Google. As Google matures into a respected, large technology corporation, it is confronting several challenges that every big tech firm ultimately goes through. In many cases this prompts companies to experiment with strategies that keep the company innovative and their workers happy.
By all accounts Google Wave was a gift to one of its star programmers–Lars Rasmussen. Rasmussen was a key architect of Google’s wildly successful Maps application and had reputedly been courted by other competing tech firms based on his success at Google. The New York Times reported in late 2010 that Google management had been struggling with a brain drain and had in place incentive programs to keep highly prized talent in-house.
The Wave project had all of the ear-marks of one of those incentives. According to the Times, executives were being offered start-up company opportunities within Google that would be given autonomy and flexibility. “Wave” was developed alone as one of these companies within Google in what could have been an effort to keep Rasmussen aboard. Tellingly, the Wave project was based not in Google’s Mountainview California headquarters, but in far-away Sydney Australia. The team was relatively small and included Rassmusen’s brother Jens who had been on the Maps team as well.
Lars Rasmussen has since left Google for rival Facebook.
While the Wave project was likely one of the in-house start-up companies that Google was using to keep talent at home, it might have been the project’s remoteness and size that kept it from integrating itself into the collective consciousness of the bigger company vision. Android had done that, even though Android was not developed in-house and Google+ is currently doing so. While real-time communications productivity is sexy to some, Social and Mobile are headline and customer grabbers.
Did Wave get lost in the product shuffle of a large technology company? Did Google never really plan to support Wave? Was it a big conspiracy? Is Google just lame?
Because Google has been fairly opaque on their reasons for dropping Wave, I suspect that the answer to all of these questions is a qualified yes. As tech observers, we have to remind ourselves that we aren’t privy to the green eye-shade analyses that are done on these projects behind closed doors. But in the big picture, we can safely assume that Google learned (and is still learning) much from the efforts that were done on behalf of Wave. We need only look at Apple’s Lisa project or Microsoft’s Web TV to see how even the biggest product failures can bring value to other products in development and we can see that some of the functionality built into Google+ and Google Docs are probably legacies from Wave R and D.
For Wave lovers, all is not lost. Not long after it was announced that Google would no longer support Wave, the company agreed to port the API programming codes to an Apache community of developers as a stand-alone open source project called “Wave in a Box”. This initiative will continue to operate attempts to create Wave functionalities across multiple platform APIs and Google has agreed to host Wave projects through April and allow users to export their current Wave contents as PDFs until then.
It is now up to the crowd to see to Wave’s long-term viability. Whatever that ultimately looks like, the ripples from Google Wave will possibly roll onto distant online shores for a long time to come.