Google Wave was the darling of I/O in 2009, but in two short years it failed. Understanding why can help us build better collaboration tools for the future of remote work and collaboration tools.
When Google Wave previewed at the 2009 I/O conference, it was a tool like no other. Not only was it the first unified workspace and collaboration platform before the remote-work boom happened, but it also tried to solve many of the same problems we’re facing today.
And yet, in less than two years, Google Wave failed.
When we look at how the platform was rolled out, it’s not surprising it ended up a mere blip in the history of SaaS innovation. Lack of product focus, positioning problems and lackluster release plan were only some of its problems.
Nowadays, as more companies are adopting the distributed model, it’s important that we learn from Wave’s mistakes. With the renaissance of real-time collaboration tools in full swing, reflecting on the story of their predecessor can provide valuable lessons for the future.
On the off chance that you haven’t heard about Google Wave before, be sure to watch this short video before you continue reading:
The History of Google Wave 🌊
Google Wave started with a single question: “What would email look like if it were invented today?” This question gave rise to one of the most ambitious real-time collaboration tools ever created.
Let’s see how Wave’s development unfolded, from its inception under the codename “Walkabout” to the eventual shutdown in April 2012 and open-source retirement in 2018.
2006–2008: Inception to Product Release 🌱
Wave’s story started in October 2004 when Google bought a mapping startup called Where 2 Tech. That acquisition came bundled with a fledgling technology that would eventually become commuters’ favorite, Google Maps.
The responsibility for the new project was given to brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen who became its lead developers. As they worked toward an initial Maps release, the brothers started to think about what might be next for them at Google.
The idea to focus on communication came from Jens who noticed a significant shift in the way people interacted online. The consensus between the brothers was that they should build a platform that would reflect those changes in its functionality.
When the Maps project was completed, Lars and Jens moved on to develop a product dubbed “Walkabout.” Their ultimate goal was to answer a number of questions about how people communicated online:
- 💬 Why are there divisions between email, chat, and document-based communication?
- ⚖️ Is there a way to create a single communication channel that spans all or most of these systems seamlessly?
- ⚙️ Is there a way to make that type of communication simple?
- 🖥 How do we design a platform that takes advantage of the current computers’ capabilities?
From there, the Rasmussen brothers assembled a tiger team of developers to execute on this idea. After several months, they came up with a prototype which, over the next few years, evolved into a product release.
They called it Google Wave.
2009–2011: Developer Preview 👨🏻💻
In May 2009, Lars, Jens and product manager Stephanie Hammond previewed Wave at Google’s I/O conference. In one fell swoop, Walkabout officially became a product, platform and protocol for real-time communication via a process called waves.
Here’s how Google’s official blog release described Wave:
“In Google Wave you create a wave and add people to it. Everyone on your wave can use richly formatted text, photos, gadgets, and even feeds from other sources on the web. They can insert a reply or edit the wave directly. It’s concurrent rich-text editing, where you see on your screen nearly instantly what your fellow collaborators are typing in your wave. That means Google Wave is just as well suited for quick messages as for persistent content—it allows for both collaboration and communication. You can also use ‘playback’ to rewind the wave and see how it evolved.”
—Wave’s blog announcement
The keynote speech took the form of a live demo, showcasing Wave’s functionality using an example of a boat trip Lars, Jens, and Stephanie were going to take.
During the presentation, the team walked the audience through the planning stage of their boat trip, highlighting how Wave worked in terms of live updates, contextual threading, and image sharing.
While there were a few hiccups, Lars and Jens attributed them to Wave being in developer preview. Overall, the initial reception of their release was overwhelmingly positive.
If you’re up for some 2009 vibes, here’s a video from that conference:
Wave’s Active Testing ⚙️
Although everyone at the I/O conference would get early access to Wave, Lars and the others stressed that the tool was still in active development. The team understood that there was still much to be done in terms of improving the product and wanted to tap the developers attending I/O for help.
With a preview account, each developer would gain access to Google Wave’s API, another significant aspect of the release. At that point, the platform was still an open-source project in Lars’s mind. Using the API would give users the ability to connect Wave to existing web applications and create individual integrations.
As it turned out, inviting developers to active testing was risky and became the first missteps in Wave’s rollout plan. Soon, the approximately 5,000 attendees at Google I/O were to become the first “outsiders” to use Wave and spot some of its headaches.
The First Wave of Problems ❌
By July 2009, Google had rolled out approximately 6,000 developer accounts and was processing additional 20,000 requests. At this time, Wave also gained a lot of traction on various forums, Twitter and other social media channels.
People were scrambling to access the platform but Google was holding back. The company would only send out single-person invites, effectively undercutting Wave’s purpose for team collaboration.
While Google wanted to play smart and not pressure a brand-new platform with an influx of users, gating invites also meant the company couldn’t capitalize on the buzz surrounding their product.
When Google finally decided to open up Wave and allow 100,000 new users, by September 2009, there were only 27,000 active developer accounts using Wave’s API. And that number was nowhere near Lars’s optimistic predictions:
“Millions of people wanted to try out the invitation-only preview we were launching later in the year. Wave became Twitter’s top trending technology topic of 2009. It was quite a bit more attention—some would call it hype—than we had expected.”
—Lars Rasmussen via Huffington Post
Once new users gained access to the platform, the enthusiasm waned as was quickly replaced by confusion:
“Twitter filled with “Got Google Wave—now what?” memes. Worse yet: early, enthusiastic users slowly trickled out as their friends weren’t quite up for using Wave, yet. Awe of our demo was quickly replaced by predictions of certain failure.”
—Lars Rasmussen via Huffington Post
Much of the dissatisfaction happened because group conversations in Wave weren’t as easy to pull off as users would have liked. Oddly enough, teams still weren’t the target audience of Google’s new product .
Groups, Restore and Other Updates ⚡️
The long-awaited support for Groups was added to Wave in December 2009, seven months after the platform had been publicly announced at I/O. In January 2010, Groups were followed with two other features that allowed users to add read-only participants and restore an existing wave from a previous version (version history).
After a so-so start, it seemed Wave was finally heading the right direction.
In March 2010, Google introduced notifications and in May 2010, after a full year of closed user testing, released Wave to the public as part of Google Labs project incubator. That event was accompanied by another, much shorter keynote during which Lars discussed the use cases from various users.
It was also the time when Lars and the team decided to open up about the teething problems his team faced over that past year:
“Since starting our invitation-only preview about half a year ago, we have significantly improved Wave’s speed, stability and ease of use. And I believe that, in the lingo of Gartner’s Hype Curve, Google Wave has reached the foothills of the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’: the product is mature enough that real use cases are emerging, and these use cases amply illustrate the new technology’s benefits.”
— Lars Rasmussen via Huffington Post
Lars’s confession revealed another critical problem of Google Wave: The team didn’t exactly know what they wanted it to be. In fact, Google was still “sandboxing” a large part of the platform’s functionality.
This brings us to August 2010 when Google announced they would be ceasing active development of the project:
“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. 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. But despite these wins, and numerous loyal fans, Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked.”
Citing lackluster adoption rates, Google decided to scrap the Wave project and use the technology in two new initiatives:
- Google Shared Spaces allowed developers to continue using Wave’s real-time protocols to build their own applications. Some examples included maps, surveys and simple browser games
- Apache Wave was an open-source project developed under the wings of the Apache Software Foundation, a leader in the open-source space. While no longer a part of Google, it did show some promise for the continued development of real-time collaboration tools in the future
2012–2018: Scuttling and a Slow Death in Open Source 💀
Over the next two years, Google Wave was pretty much tucked under the carpet. But that didn’t stop some people online from discussing the vision of the product as well as its user experience woes.
This interest flickered until January 2012 when Wave was permanently moved to a read-only phase. While users could still export existing waves, the core technology was no longer supported.
Although Wave was pretty much dead by that point, the Apache Software Foundation still managed its offshoot of the product. However, having seen little investment from the open-source community, it too was officially retired in January 2018.
So, Why Did Google Wave Fail? 🤔
With the full weight of Google 💰 behind it, why aren’t we all using Wave today? What caused a revolutionary, real-time collaboration tool to fizzle out in just a few short years?
Looking back at its turbulent history, we can conclude that:
1️⃣ Wave was (way) ahead of its time. Google was trying to solve problems that the market didn’t fully understand at the time
2️⃣ It lacked direction and faced positioning problems. The development team didn’t really know what Wave should become and who it was for
3️⃣ It had an unfortunate launch. The premature release made it impossible for Google to capitalize on the buzz surrounding their product from day one
Nowadays, it’d be difficult to imagine a world without real-time collaboration tools. With the recent boom in workplace collaboration startups, we seem to be living in a productivity paradise.
But back in the day, Google Wave was unprecedented. In an attempt to bring together chat, email, image sharing, and documentation, Google created a tool that people had no frame of reference for.
“But Wave is hardly just about traditional styles of messaging and replying that we’ve become accustomed to with email and IM. You can also edit things wiki-style with concurrent group collaboration. As anyone who has ever tried to group-edit a document on something like Google Docs knows, this can get tricky fast.”
— From TechCrunch
Contextual threading, long-running conversation history and rich-text support were all novelties in 2009. Without proper training, it was almost impossible for users to understand the real value that Google Wave was offering.
While there was some positive reception following its announcement, as soon as more users got their hands on the product, the platform’s poor usability killed its potential.
“The remaining five million or so who had asked to try our preview were much less forgiving than the first million. Retention rates of new users dropped enormously during December and January.”
— Lars Rasmussen via Huffington Post
What We Can Learn from Google Wave Story 🔄
There were several factors that contributed to Wave’s eventual demise, each a valuable lesson for other SaaS businesses today. In an era where real-time collaboration is quickly gaining popularity, Google Wave is a case study in what not to do.
The key takeaway from Wave’s story? Positioning is everything.
We live in a world of choice. If you’re building a product and don’t understand the specific value it provides to end users, you’re setting yourself up for failure. When people don’t feel the impact of your tool, they quickly turn to the competition for a better (more meaningful) solution.
You need to give users the time to understand the value your product offers. Google Wave had been in active development for approximately 18 months before the plug was pulled. And that’s not nearly enough time for users to see how the product evolves and grows with them.
Finally, your release plan is key. When Wave was introduced, Google throttled the number of people who could actively engage with it. In today’s highly competitive markets, it’s critical to get the word out as quickly and to as many people as possible.
After all, what good is a product if it has no user base to support it?
Understanding Failure Helps You Grow 📈
Google Wave was one of the first attempts at real-time collaboration. It had the potential to take the market by storm, but it didn’t.
Observing how the platform went from “promising” to “disappointing” shows that building successful tools boils down to a few essentials:
- Know your product and decide WHAT you want it to be
- Find out WHO your users are and tap them for feedback
- Figure out WHEN it’s the best time to launch
When you get that right, you’ll be able to attract users who truly understand how your product can help them get things done.
The inspiration for this article came from our YC interview with Paul Buchheit, the mastermind behind Gmail and partner at Y Combinator.—Team Taskade 🐑