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Make No Mistake, This Failure Hurt

Gordon Kelly


Breaking Wave Exposes Google's Biggest Weakness

When Google launched Wave on 27 May 2009 at I/O Conference in San Francisco it proudly proclaimed the service to be what email might "look like if it were invented today."

Fifteen months on and that grand billing has fallen flat as Google announced development of Wave will stop, its code be open sourced and the service close by the end of the year. In an official statement Google senior vice president of operations Urs Hölzle admitted:

"Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked. We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product, but we will maintain the site at least through the end of the year and extend the technology for use in other Google projects.... Wave has taught us a lot, and we are proud of the team for the ways in which they have pushed the boundaries of computer science. We are excited about what they will develop next as we continue to create innovations with the potential to advance technology and the wider web."

Is it a surprisingly personal statement for a company usually obsessed with cold hard statistics and analysis based on algorithms. In fact there is even a sense of frustration that the public weren't forward thinking enough to adopt Wave rather than any flaw in Google's proposition:

"Developers in the audience stood and cheered. Some even waved their laptops," said Hölzle in nostalgically recalling the Wave launch, adding: "We were equally jazzed about Google Wave internally, even though we weren’t quite sure how users would respond to this radically different kind of communication."

So were we blind or did Google get it wrong?

As is often the way I'd argue a bit of both. In theory Wave did seem a genuinely groundbreaking development. It came from the vision of Lars Rasmussen, the great mind behind Google Maps, and promised to revolutionise email, instant messaging and real time collaboration. As Hölzle proclaimed:

"It set a high bar for what was possible in a web browser. We showed character-by-character live typing, and the ability to drag-and-drop files from the desktop, even 'playback' the history of changes—all within a browser... The use cases we’ve seen show the power of this technology: sharing images and other media in real time; improving spell-checking by understanding not just an individual word, but also the context of each word; and enabling third-party developers to build new tools like consumer gadgets for travel, or robots to check code."

You'd be forgiven for thinking this quote came from the unveiling of Google Wave when in fact it still comes from the statement about its closure. Make no mistake, this failure hurt.

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