Google recently announced that it would discontinue Google Wave at the end of this year. For me this was disappointing news, as Wave had recently become my web app of choice for collaborative writing and editing of debate cases (I currently compete in a collegiate debate league. It’s how I met David, Josh, and Will). Since I now have to prepare for a Wave-sized hole in my life, I decided to take a longer look at some of the reasons why Google Wave failed.
Wave was a peculiar invention. Developed in Australia, it was billed as a rival to Twitter and Facebook and even used the hype-building invitation-only model of Gmail, but it never truly caught on. The failure of Google Wave is fascinating, if for no other reason than because it is a failure by Google, a company founded just 12 years ago that has come to a dominant position in world culture, business, and even vocabulary (to “Google” something has blown by passing a “Kleenex,” making a “Xerox,” or even grabbing a “Thermos“). That being said, it’s easy to see why Google Wave ran into problems.
According to Scott Berkun, “any software in this century that reinvents the scroll bar deserves to fail.” (thanks to Josh for the link) And he’s right that a major problem with Google Wave were its many minor idiosyncrasies – the weird new scroll bar, the strange keyboard shortcuts, the paucity of formatting buttons. But Wave had more fundamental issues that prevented it from reaching its full potential.
First, it tried too hard to overthrow everything. Google Wave arrived on the scene in 2009, at a time when Facebook and Twitter had already established themselves with loyal users. The problem with facing such well-established rivals was that Wave, like most web technologies, faced a “network effect;” that is, because Wave was a technology meant to facilitate communication and collaboration, its value was directly tied to the number of users using it.
But that wasn’t all. After all, Facebook and Twitter came to their positions by overtaking other, older technologies. What made the problem worse was that Wave was trying to be more than Google’s social networking application (that would be Google Buzz, which would confusingly come out shortly after Wave). Google Wave attempted to rival even more basic technologies:
What would e-mail and instant messaging look like if those technologies were created today rather than at the dawn of the Internet?
That’s the question that drove a trio of developers in Google’s Australia office to create a new tool that the search engine giant is calling a model for the future of online interaction: Google Wave.
Google changed the way we scour the Web for information and now with Wave seems to have grander designs on rethinking our digital experience by changing the way we work, connect and collaborate through the Internet.
The end result is nothing short of an ambitious rethinking of online communication, one that makes e-mail and instant messaging seem as stale as last night’s pizza crust.
–Matt Hartley, The Globe and Mail
Ambitious indeed. And of course, if Google Wave couldn’t rival Facebook and Twitter, it wasn’t about to remake the world built by instant messaging and e-mail.
The strategic flaws of Google Wave were amplified by its tactical errors. Wave was slow, buggy at release, and its invitation rollout, so successful with Gmail, built hype but kept people from actually using it (because no one had friends who had it). The biggest impact Google Wave made on my life was that it clogged my Facebook feed with people offering Google Wave invites (perhaps also signaling that they were one of the cool kids who had already received one*).
Recently, though, I’ve become enamored with Google Wave. It’s become faster, more reliable, and more smooth at collaborative real-time editing, making it less of a pain to work with. Because it’s lightweight, it’s a bit more fun to collaborate on than a Google Doc. I can get my ideas out (and hear feedback from others) more rapidly using Google Wave than with any other tool I use on the Internet. But at the same time, working with Wave inevitably showcases its greatest flaw: no exporting.
Google Wave is completely proprietary. Want to download a Wave as a PDF, Microsoft Word document, or just as a file to have offline? No can do. Wave doesn’t even have a print option. Being able to update a document and work on it with many people is a powerful tool–but how many documents that I work on with multiple people will never need to be accessed in a different format?
The question, “What would e-mail and instant messaging look like if those technologies were created today rather than at the dawn of the Internet” is an interesting one, to be sure. But to me, the answer has to be: fully integrated, interchangeable, and manipulable. Google had this right with Google Documents (Docs), which gives a multitude of options when it comes to exporting and printing, and Gmail, which does a great job printing e-mails. After all, Gmail is growing rapidly and Google Docs has prompted a Microsoft response. But they failed to grasp that with Wave, and it’s frustrating.
Compounding its harm to users, the lack of an export option left Google Wave in isolation, unable to interface with other applications and unable to carve out its own niche. For a technology to truly get off the ground, it needs to plan import/export as a central part of its strategy, not as an afterthought. Through those basic features, a web technology becomes a part of peoples’ lives and finds its home. Facebook will rifle through your e-mail account to search for your friends. Twitter will interface with a thousand different desktop apps that make it easy to switch over. But Wave required a new commitment, an open-ended commitment, so people weren’t willing to make the effort.
Luckily, for any of you who continue to use Google Wave, there is a workaround to the exporting problem. This could also be useful if Google doesn’t provide a method for exporting before Wave is taken offline.
Here’s how it works: You can use a Google Wave robot, Ferry, to export from Google Wave to Google Documents. Ironically, an extension that covers one of Wave’s most fundamental flaws also shows off one of its major strengths–its developer API. While it’s not ideal, it’s enough to keep me using Wave at least until the debate season starts.
*Full disclosure: I offered people invites. I never miss a chance to be one of the cool kids.