Why Google Wave failed

Google has reported that they will no longer continue to develop its highly innovative Wave product, and that it will likely take the sys...


Google has reported that they will no longer continue to develop its highly innovative Wave product, and that it will likely take the system down within a year.  Touted as a revolution in web-based software, Wave just never caught on.  There's no shortage of opinions on the reasons for Wave's demise, but none of them (that I've seen) looked at it from a designerly point of view.  Hence this post.

I was fortunate in that I got an invite pretty early after Wave's announcement, so I got to play with it over a fairly long time.  I honestly tried to come up with things to do with Wave, and I did come up with some ideas - as did some of my colleagues.  But in the end, it didn't seem to matter.

There are two basic sources of inspiration for designers: either one notes (or has brought to one's attention) a need that can be addressed by creating some new artifact or technology, or some new technology or capability is invented, the capacities of which can be applied to improve a situation that could not be improved otherwise.  The danger with the first approach is that the technology invented solves one problem and creates another (think automobiles, for instance).  The danger with the second approach is that the new technology isn't a good enough fit for the situation (think Apple's Lisa).

Google appears to be working on the slow integration of a number of functions under a single global web interface.  Android, Google Docs, iGoogle, the integration of task management into Gmail, integration of bookmarking into search; these all seem to me to be small, careful movements towards some single, integrated user experience, where it wouldn't matter whether you were sending email or text processing, creating a spreadsheet or "chatting" with others - the overall look and feel would be the same.

Sound familiar?  Yeah, it sounds like Wave.  This is why I was so excited by Wave.  I'd noticed this apparent movement in Google's products years before Wave came out.  And as far as it went, Wave did do just that.

So the need is there: instead of dozens of different web services - and even more importantly, dozens of different interfaces - Wave sought to put everything together into a meaningful whole.

On the other side of the coin, AJAX and other web technologies have been growing and maturing at breakneck speed over the last few years.  And every improvement heralded all kinds of new possibilities.  It was as if web technologies were changing so fast that whole new ranges of possibilities were opening up every year.

So the technological novelty was there too.

It seems like a perfect design opportunity - lots of new technologies and a real need.  So why didn't it work?

I think it's the Apple Lisa all over again.  The Lisa was an amazingly overpowered computer (for the time) that carried a ridiculous price tag.  It was without doubt a stunning technological achievement, and a brilliant machine - light years ahead of anything else available at the time.

Indeed, it was too far ahead.  Besides the sticker shock, people were stuck for reasons to use it.  People hadn't yet conceived of the needs that the Lisa could satisfy, so they saw it as useless.

I think the same thing was at work in Wave.  I think there will come a time, not too far in the future, when people will crave something like Wave; but for now, people just don't see what the point is of bringing all the functionality currently available in a half-dozen other web services together under one roof.

In other words, while Google saw it's own need to more fully integrate web services, it didn't have a clear vision of the needs of users that would be addressed by integrated web services.

There's another thing that went wrong with Wave: Google apparently had an expectation that the slow response of the system (and Wave was really slow) would not be of particular concern to users.  Boy, were they wrong!  I could forgive Wave it's performance because I understood all the computation needed to make it work in the browser - which was a helluva lot.  I too was willing to accept the proposition that Wave popularity would drive improvements in browser technology - and possibly a greater emigration to Chrome, which one would expect could handle Wave better than other browsers.

But the technology really wasn't up to the task.  Javascript is still too slow to handle the enormous load Wave placed on it, and browser developers didn't have enough time to jack up development on that side of things - assuming they would have wanted to.

There was one other serious design flaw that was never addressed, but should have been: Wave seemed totally disjoint from all other services.  So unless you could convince everyone you knew to switch from email to Wave, say, then you'd be forced to use two tools - Wave for the enlightened and email for the rest - instead of one.  I'm sure Google could have done something about this in quick order if they really wanted to.  The only thing I can assume is that they had their reasons for making this decision.  But I cannot say it was a good decision.  Indeed, it may have been the final straw.

So, in summary, Wave was a great idea that was too far ahead of its time both in terms of user needs and technology.

I hate complaining about Google, because I cannot think of another company that has made such an impact with such simple tools and forthright behaviour (for a corporate entity).  Rule #6: "You can make money without doing evil."  Brilliant, short, truthful without legal jargon or conditions.  The requirement that there shall be no documentation for the software forces designers to think of the user.  Again, brilliant.  Gmail is a revelation and knocks the socks off of every other email client.  Google Docs is 'way better than any document preparation suite for 80% of the work done by 80% of the population - again, spot on.  Google is, in my humble opinion, the best company in the world.

But they're human, and they too screw up once in a while.  I can accept that.

And I know someday people will actually want something like Wave, so I hope to see it back, in even better form.

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