Now Open To Everyone, Google Believes Wave Is Finally Ready To Roll

<It was one year ago at Google I/O that company unveiled one of its most ambitious projects to date: Google Wave. Sadly, ambition doesn’t always equal success. In fact, you might say Google Wave was too ambitious. It was promising to be too many things — it needed focus. And it needed polish. Now, all this time later, Google believes it finally has both.

Today, Google is announcing that Wave will be open to everyone. This includes not only consumers with Google accounts, but also Google Apps customers. The project is now a part of Google Labs, where it will remain as work continues on it. But much work has already been done — if you haven’t tried it in the past few months, now is probably a good time to revisit it, as is it much more stable and faster than it was in the past. And it’s full of some new features that should make it more obvious what it can be useful for.

You may recall this video from last year showcasing Google Wave on stage at Google I/O — it got over 9 million views and had people clamoring for the exclusive invites. But the video failed to answer perhaps the fundamental question, “what do we do with it right now?,” developer Lars Rasmussen tells us. “That’s because we weren’t sure,” he admits. People would load it up and get overwhelmed or confused. “But we know that now — it’s about groups of people adopting Wave,” he says.

Over the past year of watching usage, Rasmussen’s team concluded that the “sweet spot” for Wave is group collaboration. While these days, most sexy new services are some variety of social network where people share things, Wave is about “people getting together to get work done,” he says. And that’s the market Wave now intends to go squarely after.

Google is known for shipping projects early and letting them evolve as people test them out. But the company acknowledged from day one that Wave was being put out there early even by Google standards. The intention was to see how people would use it. While that may make it sound like everything has been going according to plan, that hasn’t been the perception. I asked Rasmussen if looking back now, he felt it was a mistake to release Wave the way they did. Rasmussen admits that Google wasn’t expecting as big of an initial reaction as they got. This was followed by a huge amount of backlash (which Rasmussen gave me props for predicting, which I appreciate). It’s been a bumpy ride.

But again, he says they’ve learned a lot from the past year. And the team believes that Wave will follow the Gartner Hype Cycle — we had the Peak of Inflated Expectations, followed by the Trough of Disillusionment. Now we’re ready for the Slope of Enlightenment, if the theory holds.

Wave has about a million active users now, Rasmussen says (not to be confused with the numbers from December when one million Wave invites had been sent out). While this compares favorably with another year-old service with a lot of hype, Foursquare, Wave had the benefit of Google backing it, so a million may seem low. But Wave also didn’t get the kind of piggyback Google Buzz did when Google launched it inside of Gmail — a service with nearly 200 million users. I asked the Wave team if they’d like to see some sort of similar placement for Wave in the future. “We’d be very happy if that happened,” Wave developer Stephanie Hannon says. She notes that Gmail Labs experiment may be perfect for something like that. It’s something Google and the Wave team is thinking about, Rasmussen confirms.

When I asked if they thought Buzz was stepping on their toes in some regard, Rasmussen said that while there is some overlap, the services are quickly proving to be two different things. Buzz is about sharing with a lot of people, while Wave is about realtime collaboration with a smaller group of people, he says.

I also asked Rasmussen about his thoughts on the state of HTML5, since Wave is one of the key big projects hoping to utilize some of the newer web features. “You’ll never hear me say I’m happy with the pace of HTML5 development,” Rasmussen says with a laugh. That said, the Wave team remains completely committed to the web, and thinks their technology needs could help push it forward even faster.

Mobile usage/development has been a weakness for Wave right now, according to Rasmussen. But he hopes that will changes soon with the launch of several new APIs — another part of Wave’s Google I/O announcement today.

It will be interesting to see how Wave fares in year two, with less hype and more functionality. If the team is able to get it into Gmail or Google Docs, they’ll get their chance to prove whether it’s the ultimate collaboration tool or not. And remember, almost all of this has been talk about Wave the product — the belief has always been that Wave the platform would be much more important. But the truth is that it’s hard to built a platform people will use without a product. So Wave better hope that this is indeed the Slope of Enlightenment.