The Google Wave That Crashed

When I first heard the news that Google Wave was dead last week, I was surprised. I wasn’t surprised because it was a thriving, successful product (obviously, it wasn’t). I was surprised because of the gushing I heard about it from within Google leading up to and immediately following its introduction. To hear them tell it, this was the future. So I was obviously surprised that they only gave the “future” one year to prove itself. And that’s being generous.

Obviously, I knew part of that gushing was the same bullshit hype and marketing that any company applies to any new product. But it really did seem as if some key executives — everyone from Vic Gundotra to Sergey Brin — were genuinely excited about Wave. And rightfully so. As I wrote at the time, it was ambitious as hell.

But my full quote on it, as remembered by Business Insider last week, is more fitting:

It’s ambitious as hell — which we love — but that also leaves it open to the possibility of it falling on its face. But that’s how great products are born.

Obviously, Wave ended up falling on its face. It crashed, as it were. No great product was born.

But I’m getting the nagging feeling that it crashed because Google just didn’t handle it properly. Was it hard to understand? Yes. But so what — so is email when you really stop to think about it. Did it solve a problem? No. But so what — neither does Twitter.

I think Wave is simply a case where Google’s get-it-out-there-early mentality failed. Because the product was somewhat complex and Google itself didn’t know what to do with it, or how to pitch it, it flopped. It really is that simple.

In my view (obviously, with the benefit of hindsight), Wave should have been an experimental productivity tool that was wrapped into Google Docs. It should not have been billed as some sort of next generation communication tool for the masses. At least not at first.

Or, if Google really wanted to try and shove it in peoples’ faces in that way, they should have done what they did with Buzz, and crammed it into Gmail.

Wave inside of Gmail would have been potentially interesting, I think. But as its own product, it suffered from the same thing that so many other products do: the I-don’t-have-time-to-go-there or I-forgot-I-was-supposed-to-go-there problem. Not enough attention is paid to such a small thing. But it really is true that another service really just means another service we have to visit in order to use. Eventually (and increasingly) we all run out of time. There are just too many sites to visit. That’s a huge barrier to entry. Even for Google.

Would anyone use Buzz if it weren’t in Gmail? Even Google CEO Eric Schmidt didn’t sound too sure when I asked him about Buzz last week. He also confirmed that they considered putting Wave inside of Gmail in the same way that Buzz is, but decided against it.

Something else interesting that Schmidt said during that conversation was:

We try things. Remember, we celebrate our failures. This is a company where it’s absolutely okay to try something that’s very hard, have it not be successful, and take the learning from that.

I love that idea. And while some may think he’s being disingenuous there, based on my experience with the large amount of Googlers I’ve met and/or know, I believe the culture actually is very much like that.

The problem, again, is that you need to give these types of experiments time. Sure, you shouldn’t let an idea that isn’t working bankrupt the company. But obviously that wasn’t happening here. And it just didn’t seem like Google was doing much to even try to help Wave get rolling.

Remember how Google pitched Wave as not so much the product, but as a protocol that developers would build on top of? What happened to that idea? I’m hardly the only one wondering that. I’m just not sure how you can throw that grandiose idea out there and then kill it in far less than a year.

And let’s be honest, saying Google gave Wave a year is generous. While it was unveiled at I/O last year, it didn’t actually start rolling out until several weeks after that to a small amount of people. Most people didn’t get access to it until several weeks after that — some even had to wait months. Hell, it wasn’t even fully open until May of this year. As in 2010. As in, not even three months ago.

I mean, there really must have been no one using Wave for Google to can the project that soon after opening it to the public.

But again, what did they expect? It was a service that was supposed to be a platform. It was a platform that only ever really existed as a service. It was a service with a confusing UI. It was a service with about twenty too many buttons to hit. It was the opposite of Keep It Simple, Stupid. It was just weird.

But the technology behind it seemed pretty solid and interesting — particularly in the scope of the future of the web as Google sees it: HTML5. Google is spending so much time and energy on Google Docs to try and kill Microsoft Office, but really all they’re doing is taking most of the same Office ideas and putting them in the web browser. Why not shake shit up and attempt to use Wave technology to make collaboration really interesting? Obviously, this should be experimental — but as we just went over, that’s Google’s thing: experimental.

I like to think my own natural usage of a new service is a pretty good barometer of how well it will do. And I’ll be honest, like seemingly everyone else, I wasn’t using Google Wave. But the weird thing is that I wanted to use Google Wave, I just wasn’t presented with a compelling reason to do so. And that’s on Google.

The interest was clearly there: witness the thousands of invites that were selling for ludicrous amounts of money on eBay. Witness the fact that “Google Wave” was a top query leading to TechCrunch for months. Witness how long it was a Trending Topic on Twitter. Witness that I was approached to write a book about Wave — before it was even released. Witness the coverage of its death.

Let’s hope that Google can “take the learning from that,” as Schmidt put it, and apply it to Google Me.