Google Wave was born over a year ago, with Google’s weight right behind it. I remember watching a video of the Google I/O ’09 conference where Wave was announced to resounding applause by the charming Lars Rasmussen, co founder of the Google Wave project.
Right from the outset, everyone recognized Wave as a revolutionary product, built with the latest internet technologies, taking the “real time” web to a new level. Lars introduced Wave as “communication and collaboration software” but “commboration” would have been a more apt description, as it blurred the lines between email, IM, documents, wikis, text streaming, social networking, image sharing and more. It set itself an ambition no less than “redefining email”, the primary communication technology for over 40 years.
As the readers must already know, Google Wave was formally put to rest as a stand-alone product on August 4th, low adoption by users cited as a reason.
In the consumer market, a drastically new technology has fair chances of taking off, because consumers like to experiment, and are forever looking for something new to cater to short attention spans. The business market however, is less venturesome, and the capabilities of a technology need to be clearly mapped to organizational needs. The important question is – what can it do for us? For example social networking and tweeting may be big hits with consumers, but are only gradually finding their way into businesses, after much debate.
There’s a big debate around why Google Wave died. We have our own opinions on why Wave didn’t take off in the business market, some of which we proposed at the time Wave started to catch on. Here are our arguments:-
Ever since Google Wave was launched, the emphasis was always on its capabilities – you could co author “Waves” in real time character by character, you could embed images and video, you could use it as a platform to build cool applications, you could replay a wave as it evolved and so on. But there was never very clear articulation around – what can you use it for?
It was clear from the outset that Google expected the market to define the use cases for Wave. It felt that if it just put this powerful and compelling technology out there – uses would emerge from the user and developer community.
This strategy may work in the consumer market, but not in businesses. The technology follows well defined uses, defined over years of experience – collaboration on documents, text communication, audio communication, tools that help manage the customer cycle and so on. Sure, technology pushes the limits of how you can work better, but the changes are always incremental, never drastic. Software-as-a-service had to prove itself for years before being widely accepted as it is now.
Business have also developed over years ways of thinking about its information – there is email, documents, IM, forums, wikis – each serving a somewhat separate purpose.
There is information we categorize as communication (email, IM), which is not highly structured, and does not need to be revisited often; and recurring use information, which is highly structured and needs to be visited often (documents).
Then there are different ways of how we work together on information – asynchronously (one person contributes at a time)(email) or synchronously (all participants contribute at the same time)(IM).
Google Wave threw all these different types of information – email, IM, documents, wikis, communication, collaboration, asynchronous, and synchronous – into a real time soup called a “wave”.
If that wasn’t already confusing, all waves were bundled together in a single inbox style interface. This was always calling for a new kind of “information overload” without even the benefit of familiar segregations in information types.
The whole structure was counter-intuitive from the start and expected a huge leap from its users.
Over years of working with businesses we have discovered that a collaboration solution needs to reflect the structure of an organization. Real time collaboration on information may be good for some situations but teams don’t need to work together just once, but on an ongoing basis, often on complex tasks involving sub tasks, deadlines, and sequencing of activities. They also need repeated access to the same information (forms, contract documents) and for information to be stored and archived for future access (if not for regulatory compliance).
Imagine different team members trying to find documents in their Wave inboxes.
These needs are best met by the “workspace” structure, which is the design principle of HyperOffice. A group workspace is a collection of all the information and tools a group needs to work together and coordinate activities – online document management, project management, shared calendars, wikis, shared address books and so on.
A permissions system allows only members to access group information and tools. Advanced permissions help distinguish the rights of members within the same group. This helps implement organization policy controls based on organizational roles. Policy control within Wave would have been a nightmare.
A single person can be a member of multiple team or project workspaces, just as is the case in organizations.
The workspace also helps achieve the HR objective of engaging and motivating employees. A workspace desktop is where a motto of the month may be displayed, or an “employee of the month” be recognized.
An Important Lesson
The Wave story also has strong lessons about how Google operates. It is well known that Google’s profits are overwhelmingly generated by its advertising business. Its Google Apps and enterprise software wing forms only a fraction of its profitability, and accordingly reflects its importance in the larger Google scheme. If Google finds something is not working out for it, it will simply drop that module/function/product or divert resources, manpower and development effort away. It is not primarily concerned about how much energy and resources business users may have expended transitioning to it. The skewed negotiating power of large vendors and small sized customers was nicely elaborated by Phil Wainewright in his article “Web giants and the helpless individual.”
A smaller company like HyperOffice, on the other hand, has a single minded focus on its collaboration business. Having no other product line or services, we devote all our energies and resources to our collaboration offerings to ensure continued patronage from current users and win new users in a competitive market. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that our very livelihood depends on this.
Even if Google Wave had been successful it is hard to imagine to be used for more than as “email on steroids” or an ad-hoc collaboration tool. It didn’t having the makings, or maybe never even intended to be a full blown organizational collaboration software.
However, Google Wave has certainly left a legacy. It has pushed the limits of “real time collaboration”, and used cutting edge internet technologies in innovative ways. As Michael Arrington says, maybe it was just ahead of its time.
It will certainly be remembered as a daring attempt to topple email from its four-decade reign.