The end of Google Wave : both something logical and a half-truth

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Summary : Google announced the end of Wave last week. Beyond the logical deception of those who adopted it and believed in it, many lessons can be learned from this project, most of all about the almost systematic failure of communications tools that don’t integrate with business contexts and processes. Anyway, maybe the deep nature of Wave was to be a software layer instead of a standalone product.

Google announced Wave was dead last week. According to their words :

But despite these wins, and numerous loyal fans, Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked. We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product, but we will maintain the site at least through the end of the year and extend the technology for use in other Google projects.

Since any downside has its upside, let’s try to find what can be learned from this adventure :

1°) Too good too early ?

Maybe Google was too early. That’s, in fact what Michael Arrington suggests and that’s surely a part of the explaination. That’s neither the first nor the last time such things happen and what happened to Apple in the late 80s/ early 90s should remind us that it can heppen to any company, that it may be harmful, but that it’s possible to recover from it.

2°) An half-cooked product

That’s the impression Wave made in the first times after its launching. Of course, it was continuously improved but it was too late to get the first deceived users back because they had other concerns than testing “one more tool” waiting for it to become usable. The worse thing in this story being that these users were supposed to be the power ones who should have lead the adoption. Fail.

On the other hand, Wave has been a very instructive experience because it demonstrates the limits of a powerful and rich stream : its lack of usability. I’m sure that many vendors that had similar things in project learned the lesson. We’ll discuss that in an upcoming post.

3°) Wrong positionning

Albeit powerful and rich, Wave was not, like Google Apps, Gmail and many other services, something anyone can master and understand quickly. To some extent it was rather an enterprise application, even if it doesn’t mean this positionning would have made things easier. Anyway, it was more a collaboration tool than a communication tool. On the web people communicate because they want and happen to collaborate by luck, in the workplace they collaborate by need and that may have made it easier to find the right early adoptions there.

4°) A tool that does not fit in the workplace

Maybe Wave an enterprise application by nature but not by design (even if this defect is common to many enterprise 2.0 apps). As a matter of fact, context is totally missing in the application.

This is clearly explained by Sameer Patel :

But there’s a more important issue at play here. My sense is that the primary culprit here is lack of context.  No matter how sexy, the use case for silo’ed, dumb “un-smart” collaboration still generally goes like this:

* Think up/get notified of a process problem or event
* Remember that a bunch of tools and metaphors (email, phone, he conf room, software) exists that can help decision facilitation/brainstorming
* Group/find the right people to collaborate
* Pick a collaboration metaphor that works for everyone
* Solve the problem
* Go back to the system of record or powers that be, to deliver the outcomes.

Ah…Processes. Love them, hate them, challenge them, but to be succcessful in the workplace don’t ignore them.

In decharge to Google, let’s admit they didn’t get much help. At the very beginning, Wave seemed to be designed to integrate with structuring tools, as some demos showed (one of the them was with SAP if I remember well). But what could Google do if developers did not jump on the bandwagon (and why should have they since the tool was not frankly about to make it in the workplace) while no help has to be expected from traditional vendors who were working on social layers for their own apps ?

5°) A “vendor” and techno-centric approach

There’s some words in Google’s announcement that actually upset me :

Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked.

I can’t prevent myself from hearing : “we made a kind product and we’re disappointed users were not kind enough to use it” or “our job is to make software, people’s job is to use it”. To some extend we must feel guilty for pushing Google to make this decision.

Using a tool is neither an obligation or a job to users. If a product is well designed and makes sense it will be used. If it’s well designed and that’s not the vendor’s job to give it some sense, then the vendor has to find the right relays and have a compelling message about that.

With this kind of tool, a large part of sense comes from context….back to the previous point.

6°) After all, Google wave is not dead

In the announcement, the most interesting thing is not the end of Wave…it’s what follows

We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product, but we will maintain the site at least through the end of the year and extend the technology for use in other Google projects.

What can be understood as “we keep the mechanism to implement parts of it where it makes sense”. A first step toward context ? Potentially yes, but I’m afraid of the “for use in other Google projects”. Either the projects in question are similar to SocialText’s ‘Social Layer” de Social Text and there’s a true potential (provided Google manages to be seen as a credible enterprise software player for other things than search and office 2.0…) or Google won’t be able to address new fields because all their products will lack context.

The unanswered question is does Google want to become a major player for anything else than mail/search/office ?

Anyway Google will have to be fast. As I reminded on last monday, Technology is like fish : the more it stays on the shelf, the less desirable it becomes.

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Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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