Google Wave – Am I surprised Google stops development?

By Matt Cornock

Something of a premonition occurred the weekend just gone. I was flicking through my Google Mail (or GMail now in the UK since the bought the rights off the previous small-time UK mail host using that brand), pondering the existence of Google Wave. I remembered watching the 90 minute (or so) promo video a while back that Google posted any my original though of: ‘well that’s interesting.’

Successive thoughts in the following moments were along the lines of:

  • Will it really replace email?
  • Surely threading and branching could get confusing?
  • Is not having character-by-character typing really a problem?
  • Is it accessible? 
  • Why should I use this instead of my existing dedicated tools?

Needless to say, the recent announcement by Google that development will cease has not come as much of a surprise to me. I expect the same of Google Buzz in the near future too. Part of the reasons for dropping development are probably due to lack of take up. But why is this? Let’s take a look at some of the Google Wave ‘selling points’.

Better than email

Email is the digital memo, post-it note, phone message, letter, envelope and text message. It’s generic, it’s worked for decades and it can also be difficult to manage. Google Wave wanted to create a sense of a continuity of discussions that occur by email, this would be a wave. People could join a wave at different points, or throw new things into the wave. In theory, this single wave (I prefer the analogy of a piece of string) ties together everything on a topic. The wave offers sub-waves, pieces of string tied to the main piece of string, for tangential but related discussions with selected individuals. However, the more you deviate from a single thread, the more complex managing a wave could become.

This is why people have multiple email conversations, even if they’re on the same topic. Again, these can be cumbersome to manage. However, people are now used to this way of working, spinning multiple plates rather than stacking them in neat piles together.

Better than instant messaging

Instant messaging (IM) has morphed in many ways over the last few years, particularly with integrated chat and IM tools embedded in social networking sites like Facebook. MSN/Windows Live and Yahoo Messenger are the stalwarts of IM, standalone pieces of software that are fully controllable with blocking, online/offline display and various other bits and pieces. Integrating messaging in the sense that people will be attached to their email so why not bundle in IM as in Google Wave, doesn’t address the different mindsets that users have when using IM vs email. Email is carefully constructed and slower, especially in the work place where formal email is more common. IM is informal, often text-speak, instant (unsurprisingly) and demands attention. When people work on emails, they typically address specific emails at a time, automatically filtering what is relevant and prioritising. IM doesn’t allow this, as IM pushes for the highest attention.

Multiple data-types and media

The drag-n-drop functionality that Google Wave brought to the table was its highlight. Even though, it’s not as revolutionary a concept, it was unique in its implementation. Desktop email clients already allow drag’n’drop, but Google Wave allowed this to happen via online email accounts and in a seamless and tidy manner. Furthermore, the different types of media slotted into the wave in a rational and logical way, as opposed to email attachments which well, are just stuck on.

Initial excitement

When Google Wave was first released, I was thinking of how it could be used, particularly in my work field of elearning. However, not returning to the tool, I soon forgot about it and ended up sticking to my usual toolset. Perhaps this indicated either that there was no problem for Google Wave to solve in the first place, or that the market it was trying to address didn’t really exist, or that the market didn’t really ‘get’ what Google Wave could bring.

When I review the lauch video, and ignore the slightly too cheesy cheers from the hyped up crowd every time a mouse was clicked, I do feel the enthusiam which the development team brought to the project. This is still something which Google is very strong on: bringing enthusiasm and ideas into real projects. I feel this almost ‘trial and error’ approach, a willingness to accept ‘lossy risks’ in an attempt to better the computer user world, is something we can all try and aspire to.

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