Google Wave: Praising the Good

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Google Wave was a vast, ugly experiment, a one-man band of a collaboration tool that played piano, guitar and harmonica simultaneously with cymbals between its knees and a trained monkey keeping time on a garbage can lid. But it had worthy goals.

Google Wave was designed to be a collaboration tool that combined the best features of e-mail, Google Docs, instant message, and Web application development, and put them all in a single package. But it didn't work out, and Google pulled the plug on Wave on Wednesday.

To me, the promise of Google Wave was that it would tame the problem of too many communications channels. We all have multiple ways of getting in touch with each other: E-mail; several instant messaging accounts; messaging on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn; a couple of different phone numbers, and more. Transferring communications from one channel to another is problematic.

For example, I was recently planning to connect with a friend at Comic-Con. The plans were loose, I was just going to text her from the show and we'd meet up. But once I got to the show, I realized I didn't have her cell phone number. I have two e-mail addresses for her, two Twitter accounts, we're friends on Facebook, we're connected on two instant messaging services. But because I didn't have her her cell phone number, we never connected.

That doesn't happen frequently, but it happens often enough to be frustrating. What if there was a single tool to unify all of a person's different communications channels -- the "universal inbox" that's been a marketing buzzword for more than 15 years?

All Things

I'd hoped Google Wave could be that tool, because it can behave like all those things: It can function as e-mail, instant messaging, voice chat, and throws in Google Docs-style document collaboration on top. But Wave lacked hooks to existing e-mail, IM, and voice channels, and so in its current incarnation it doesn't solve the proliferating inbox problem -- it just makes it worse. If Google Wave had become popular, it would have been one more inbox that people needed to check.

The other big problem with Google Wave was that it's too darn complicated.

I've actually used Google Wave in real life, part of a three-day all-hands meeting with my client Palisade Systems, a business-to-business security vendor. We used it as a discussion backchannel at the meeting, typing in comments and questions on presentations as they happened, and sharing slide decks. It was great for that -- but the user interface is confusing. Nothing on Wave works like other applications you're used to. Even the scrollbars behave differently.

Google Wave isn't dead, though. Google says that parts of the technology will live on in other, unannounced products. What parts should survive?

I asked that question of Gina Trapani, author of the book The Complete Guide to Google Wave (and also the friend I failed to meet up with at Comic-Con). She said she liked the way Google Wave handled inline replies. Rather than reply and quoting back the part of a message you want to respond to, you can just embed your reply in the previous message. That's neat.

Google Me

More significantly, the Google Wave protocol itself is robust, powerful, and open source. She said she'd like to see some company, perhaps a startup, build a focused, easy-to-use project management tool based on a slimmed-down version of the protocol.

Also, Gina wondered why Google chose to shut down wave at all, and why now? Other projects within Google live on even if they've failed to attract users, like Knol. So why shut down Wave?

She speculated that Google wants to transfer the developers to work on another project -- specifically Google Me, the company's rumored, imminent Facebook competitor. Google Wave attracted some of the best developers in the company, including Lars Rasmussen, who co-founded Google Maps. Google needs all hands to work on Me, she said.

I'm intrigued by the possibilities of Google Me. Google has had three successful products: Search, Gmail, and Maps, and in each case, they completely redefined the category they entered. In each case, the first time you called up the product you thought to yourself, "It never occurred to me that you could do it that way before! But now that I see it, it's obvious that this is the right way to do it!" I'm hoping that Google can do the same thing with social media -- they'll need to, because Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have miles and miles of head start in social media.

Finally, my colleague Steve J. Vaughan-Nichols points out how Google Wave's demise is an example of one of the deepest questions of the technology industry: "Wave Fails, Twitter wins. Why?" Why do some technologies succeed in the marketplace, and others fail? He uses the example of Twitter vs. IRC: IRC is in every way superior to Twitter. IRC isn't hard to use -- if you can use Twitter, you can use IRC. So why is Twitter a mainstream success, the darling of 104-year-olds and celebrities, whereas IRC is a niche product used almost exclusively by software developers?

It's a fantastic question. I have my own thoughts on the subject, but I want to think about it a little more before sharing, so instead I'll invite you to read Steven's blog and leave a comment there.

Mitch Wagner

is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

This story, "Google Wave: Praising the Good" was originally published by Computerworld.

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