On the death of Google Wave

I read today that Google pulled the plug on Wave. This shouldn’t matter, since Wave was always supposed to be open source from the beginning. I don’t know if Google actually kept that promise or not, but if they did, then Wave should live on.

Even if it doesn’t, I believe that the future will look more and more Wave-like.

Perhaps Wave needed to happen to give us a clear picture of what the future ought to look like. I have little doubt that the concepts of cross-app integration and direct collaboration are definitely going to stick around.

Wave was ahead of its time. I remember when it was first announced, my first reaction was “WTF is Wave?” After I watched the video and understood the concept, I thought, “Wow, what a great idea.”

That’s about as far as I, and many other people, it seems, got with it.

The problem I had with it was I never had a reason to work in Wave for any document I was authoring solo, which, it turns out, is better than 90% of the documents that I author. The few times I had occasion to suggest to a group that we look into trying out Wave, we never got off the ground with it. Either there was a question of did everyone have an invite, or if that wasn’t the problem, then no one really knew how to get things started in Wave in order to kick off a project.

There seems to be something about working collaboratively on mentally-intensive (particularly creative) endeavors that makes it a struggle for most people, especially people who don’t already know each other well and have fallen into roles that are familiar to them, where everyone knows what they’re doing and what’s expected of them. Wave might have been a great tool for us, but in order to have had a chance it needed a Wave Evangelist, someone familiar with the tool and who had leadership qualities and would be effective at delegating tasks to team members. I’ve always found that working in a group is not much fun without strong leadership. By which, I mean, someone who knows what the group needs, and has a clear vision for how to accomplish that goal, and who can communicate effectively with everyone else.

Human teaming factors aside, I think that Wave didn’t stand much of a chance because it didn’t offer people a “gateway drug” kind of experience. If you’ll pardon the metaphor, Wave needed some way to get users’ toes wet, and encourage them to wade into it until they developed the skills necessary to swim. It never managed to do this.

Despite this, I think that Google was on to something when they announced Wave. Like many great ideas, it came ahead of its time. In 10 years or so, we’ll look back and see that it paved the way for a new cloud-centered, collaborative way of working with documents, with information, with other people. Eventually, Wave will happen. But it will not happen as a big announcement with an hour long introductory video to explain it. Instead, it will seep in gradually and immerse us all until we suddenly realize that the tide has come in. (Again with apologies for the extended aquatic metaphor.)

What I mean by that is this: Wave was all about integration of existing technologies that we’re already familiar with: word processing, calendaring, instant messaging, email, web browsing. Google’s mistake with Wave was thinking that they needed to convince everyone that the old tools should be cast aside in favor of the new Web 2.0+ hotness that Wave represented.

When a oceanic wave crosses a point on the surface, there are two ways that it can first reach that point: trough first, or crest first. Google’s approach, essentially, was a crest-first approach: Wow everyone with this new concept and generate a lot of buzz so that people would be excited and want to use this new, cool technology. Apparently this was needed in order to get everyone to ditch their old, pre-Web 2.0 ways of doing things and give Wave a try.

It failed. People are comfortable with their old tools, and didn’t know how to transition to Wave. And until their friends were all on Wave, they would likely never have a reason to.

But consider if Google had taken a “trough-first” approach. Rather than inundating the world with an hour-long video explaining just what Wave is and how you can’t live without it, they start simply by adding Wave-like features into the existing suite of Google applications. The convergence of gTalk and gMail is an excellent example of this. Gradually, Google extends all of their existing web-served apps until users realize they’re waist deep in Wave. Maybe it’ so immersive by then that it hardly even needs its own name. No one would have been asked to throw away their old tools. No one would have had to have been the first to dive into learning some new, strange tool, and try to get their friends or colleagues interested in trying it out. It would have just grown up around us, rolling in like a rising tide. That approach would have worked.

And indeed, I believe that it will happen, eventually. And it will happen just as I’ve outlined in the above paragraph. A combination of cloud storage going mainstream, plus open standards for data formats, plus extensible feature sets in applications is all that is needed. Given these three things, add time, and it will happen.

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