Google Wave officially fizzled yesterday, following just over a year of exaggerated hype and underwhelming performance.
From a practical standpoint, ending Wave development makes a lot of sense; why invest work hours and resources into an end product that isn’t being adopted and hasn’t met expectations? However, as we noted yesterday, speed in which Wave (and we promise, this is our last pun) wiped out is worth reflecting upon.
Why did Wave fail and how can Google learn from this experience?
Wave started its life amidst a ton of hype, which, we’ll admit, Mashable played a role in encouraging. Buoyed by a brilliant demonstration at Google I/O in May 2009, the anticipation for end users was already in full effect by early summer.
I recall last June, six or seven weeks before I started work at Mashable, having dinner with some friends who had just attended a local user group meeting that included overview of Google Wave from some of the attendees of Google I/O. The invite-only public beta hadn’t even started, yet it was already worthy of local group discussion.
The hype reached a crescendo when invites were first released on September 30 with everyone and their brother clamoring to get access to the new service. Then we got access, and the problems started.
Lesson 1: Keep Expectations in Check
The first lesson that Google or any web application developer can learn from Google Wave is the importance of managing expectations. Because the hype window started four months before Wave actually launched, the idea of what Wave was easily exceeded the reality.
Phrases like “radically different approach to communication” and “e-mail 2.0″ were bandied around, along with buzz-word laden phrases like “paradigm-shifting game-changer.” But in reality, Wave turned out to be a collaborative real-time editor with an IRC menu attached and an in-browser macro creator.
That isn’t to take away from the technical achievements of getting those components to work in the web browser, but it seems that Wave was really more of a convergence of longstanding ideas rather than some huge realignment of real-time group communication.
Yes, the tech press is partially responsible for over-selling Wave, but ultimately, Google set the tone by playing coy and teasing Wave as the next big thing. “The next Gmail” was a common phrase. That set major expectations, and it was clear as soon as Wave launched in public beta that those expectations were not going to be met.
Lesson 2: Make Your Product Clear
Clearly defining what your product is goes hand-in-hand with managing expectations. From the very beginning, Google seemed unsure of what Wave was and clueless about how to present it to the public.
For instance, it took a third party to create a video explaining Google Wave for many people to actually understand the central points and aims of the service.
Google is usually very good about making its products easy to understand. Gmail, for example, was instantly recognizable as web email. Google Docs was quickly seen as an online tool for creating and sharing documents, AdWords as paid search keywords, etc. However, with Wave, the concept was never drilled down to a simple metaphor. And no, “a wave of information” is not a clear metaphor.
Lesson 3: Launch When Ready
Still, even with unchecked expectations and an unclear overall product, initial interest and demand for Wave was extremely high at the beginning. The invite-only frenzy was reminiscent of the early Gmail era (the first few rounds of invites in the spring and summer of 2004) and people were really eager to see what the fuss was about.
The problem was, invites were very, very slow to roll out. In fact, the service only lost the invite-only method two months ago. To add insult to injury, the group that could have most benefited from Wave, Google Apps users, never got access.
Staggered invite releases can make sense for certain product launches. It made sense for Gmail, considering the amount of storage each user was getting (relative to the other webmail services at the time) and consideration for scaling and spam issues. The same can be said for Google Voice. However, for a tool like Wave, which is by definition a collaborative tool, it really needed to be launched to a large audience.
It may not have been feasible for Google to push Wave out to the entire world on the first shot, but there is absolutely no good reason it took nine months to go from initial invites to open access. Not when you add four months of hype in front of the initial launch. Had Google waited to make sure it had the resources to scale and support Wave or to bring it to Google Apps users before launching the product, the company might have better capitalized on the early hype.
Web applications are moving so fast it’s just not reasonable to expect people to still care about your product after the initial frenzy of publicity and attention. The only time this kind of strategy can succeed is if the end product is totally worth waiting for. Hulu, for instance, got away with launching softly in late October of 2007 and then going live to everyone in February 2008. Why? Because in the end, having free online access to new and old television shows from the major networks was worth it.
Lesson 4: Have Real Value
Above and beyond the issues with strategy and marketing, our biggest problem with Google Wave was that it just didn’t offer any real value.
First, it required creating a separate account that wasn’t linked to your other Google or Google Apps accounts, which made adding in contacts and sharing Google Docs files more difficult that necessary.
Then was the problem with noise and managing groups and access control lists. Then there was the initial kludginess of the collaborative real-time editing set-up.
Simply put, Wave just wasn’t a very good product in its final form. Even after the API and plugins were released, the features were never really structured in a way that made it overly useful.
In fact, we would argue that the best thing to come from Google Wave was the acquisition of the EtherPad team. EtherPad is an example of how to build a useful and value-adding web application. The fact that EtherPad clones sprouted up after Google acquired Appjet is proof of just how useful the app continues to be.
But as for Wave, even after all the hype, it ended up being hard to understand, annoying to use, and ultimately not very functional.
Learn From the Past
Hopefully Google will take a long, hard look at the decisions made in during Wave’s development and deployment. Ultimately, the decision to take the best elements of the service and push them into already existing services makes a lot more sense than trying to create something new.
As Google has also seen with Buzz, finding success isn’t as easy as just slapping a Google logo on a product, especially when the primary audience is regular users (as opposed to early adopters).
However, success is a lot more likely if expectations are managed, product definitions are clear, launches are well timed and the end product is ultimately providing value.
Why do you think Google Wave flopped? Let us know what you think in the comments.