Why Google Wave failed

Mon, Jun 13, 2011


Google Wave. A perfect example of what makes Google so great, and yet at the same time, flawed. Interesting technology coupled with clumsy execution.

Google notes that Google Wave is no longer under active development, though users can still use the service and create new waves. What makes the failure of Google Wave to gain any traction so interesting is that it was introduced with a ton of fanfare, a dynamic that may in part be attributed to a string of publicized Google successes such as Gmail, Google Voice, and more recently, Android.

Alas, Google Wave flopped and remained a frustrating mystery even to those who actually figured out how to use the damn thing.

I recently ran into an old Quora thread examining why Google Wave was never able to get off the ground. The replies are illuminating and illustrate that the entire launch process was ill-conceived, not to mention the core of the product itself.

First and foremost, Google attempted to implement the same invitation-only strategy that worked so well when it was rolling out Gmail. The problem is that Google Wave wasn’t email and required that all users be using the service. As such, it ran into the age old problem of being the only person with a telephone – who the hell are you going to talk to?

Second, Google did a horrible job relaying what it was Google Wave actually did. Was it different than email? What kind of collaboration tool was it? Was it a standalone service? A complement to other services? The questions were endless and the answers were confusing, if they were ever present.

Below are a few of the more pointed responses to the question of why Google Wave failed.

Because invites were so damn limited. It took well over a dozen people inviting each other to get my entire med school class of <190 on there so we could work on review notes together. It should’ve taken no more than a handful, tops.

Limited invites may be great to create an aura of exclusivity, but really serve no purpose if you want to get a product up and running.

User interface was not intuitive. Seriously. I can’t count the number of times I had to explain to people how to use it. Also, there are way better ways to show how many people are on a wave than putting 100+ avatars at the top of a wave taking up real estate. A sidebar would’ve been much more elegant.

Another former Wave user chimes in:

When Wave first launched, individual Waves didn’t have a URL. This made it impossible to link to them from outside of Wave – people were having to say “log in to Wave, then search for X”. If you can’t link to something on the internet, it may as well not exist.

Another problem, and perhaps more endemic to Google than some would like to admit, is that Google Wave was truly beta software distributed for mass consumption. It was buggy, wasn’t differentiated enough from Google other online productivity tools, and again, had a subpar user interface.

Google likes to pride itself on being an engineering company, and anyone who’s worked there before won’t hestitate to rave about the engineering-centric culture that permeates through the company. That said, sometimes relying exclusively on engineers results in nifty technology behind an uninviting user interface that’s anything but intuitive. Such was the problem with Google Wave, and indeed, some argue similar problems currently plague Android.

The most common complaint I remember hearing about Wave back when it was, umm, crashing down upon the shore, was that no one was ever quite sure what the hell it was supposed to do!

Another reason they failed, was because they didn’t know the true purpose of Wave, and they marketed it differently on different occasions. Was it a next generation e-mail system? Was it a collaboration tool? Was it a social network? If it wasn’t very clear for them, how could it be for people that would try to promote it to their friends?

Not to channel Steve Jobs, but technology for technology sake is completely uninteresting to end users. Take capacitive touchscreens, for example. Cool technology, but how many people really would have cared about it had it not been for the iPhone?

Google also made the mistake, I think, of setting the standard of expectations way too high for Google Wave. Phrases like “revolutionary” and “will change the way we use computers” are great slogans if they carry any weight. If not, people will be disappointed even if a product or service is just okay, and will be utterly upset and annoyed if it’s anything less.

And lastly, this Quora answer addresses an interesting UI/Social problem.

I┬átried using Wave three times with coworkers. With about 5 people in each wave, every time it quickly turned into a big mess. By the time you would reply to one post, it was already part of the past and other people would reply on top of you. As the wave grew and continuously updated, you would have to scroll around to find the place your specific conversation was taking place. Basically it was like a bunch of people talking at once, and nobody could hear the entire conversation, or keep up with it. We pretty quickly gave up on Wave and reverted to a traditional email string which was completely manageable and useful…

The realtime typing was a bad idea… it just shows how badly we all type, and people would start to reply to you half-written statement if you are a slow typist.

Great insight about realtime typing and users replying to half-written statements. It’s one of those issues that’s so obvious in hindsight but can easily be ignored amidst the wave of cool potential and theoretical use cases.

In any event, the entire thread is worth poring over if you’re into this kind of stuff. Check it out here.


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