Friday, November 13, 2015

Are the Lessons from Google Wave Debacle Still Relevant ?

In this blog (or hopefully a series of them), i intend to write about the key lessons to be learned not only from the tech products that failed in the past but also i intend to write a bit about why products succeed as well. The motivation to write this comes directly from my experience. I started my career with working on a large ecommerce product, which was (at that time) supposed to be the biggest technology application built entirely on Microsoft technology. Ok, the word "biggest" in the past sentence has more or less an anecdotal reference but the key point is that this project really struggled to find its feet due to various reasons. I will talk more about my own experience in the coming posts but to start off, i wanted to put a microscope on some of the public products that bit the dust. Failures, like success, leaves a lot to be learned from. My personal hypothesis is that most failures share similar reasons that led to eventual results. As a series of this blog, i want to test this hypothesis as well. I will try and bind my narrative to around 500 words so (covering top 3-4 reasons) that it remains within the readability limits.

The first product that pick for analysis is Google Wave. The reason I pick up this product is simply that i got to know a bit about this product while reading the book "How Google works" and it is quite fresh in my mind. As the book says- Google Wave as the creation of
a small team of engineers who took their 20 percent time to explore the question "What would email be like if it were invented today?" Google Wave was said to be a technological marvel, but it proved to be a major flop. Its user base never grew as expected (said to be close to 1 million or so) and Google eventually cancelled this project within one year of its launch in around 2010. Google Wave was said to be "collaboration and communication tool consolidating] core online features from e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, wikis, multimedia management, and document sharing,”

Some reasons for its failure as I researched as below-

Complicated User Experience:
As this Quora article suggests,
In retrospect, the lack of success of Google Wave was attributed among other things to its complicated user interface resulting in a product that was a bit like email, a bit like an instant messenger and a bit like a wiki but ultimately couldn't do any of the things really better than the existing solutions.

One of the studies even pointed that a celebrated Tech journalist even wrote a 195 page manual on how to use Wave.
This fact that someone need to write a hefty manual explaining a product alone would testify that Wave probably missed a trick or two in designing a simpler application. It appeared that it was not only hard to use but it was also perceived as hard to explain.

If we fast-forward to 2015, companies are adopting unbundling as a product strategy, which means that they are decoupling the features to make it more usable or focused e.g. Facebook unbundling messenger from the core app. It means that the world gets to value simpler, one feature app more than an app doing too many things, which Google Wave tried to do.

Launched with Lofty Expectations:
As this Mashable article suggests, The first lesson that Google or any web application developer can learn from Google Wave is the importance of managing expectations. Because the hype window started four months before Wave actually launched, the idea of what Wave was easily exceeded the reality. Phrases like "radically different approach to communication" and "e-mail 2.0" were bandied around, along with buzz-word laden phrases like "paradigm-shifting game-changer."

As I have experienced, when a product is launched with much fanfare, it always runs the risk of being subdued under its own expectations. This is something Intel observed when they launched Pentium chip (more about it in later blogs) when one edge case bug resulted in a loss of close to a half billion dollars majorly because of the marketing hype preceding it.

Lack of Extensions:
As one of the reasons cited in eweek- Google Wave was open sourced and yet failed to catch on with developers. While SAP, Novell and all vowed to work with Wave, and there were a number of extensions created, the support didn't match that of other Google projects, such as Chrome, for which there are thousands of browser extensions. That's a big killer.

As I explained in one of my earlier blogs, in today’s tech era the successful products are more defined with a platform style architecture where building a successful ecosystem of developers is the key. The absence of incentives attracting enough developers timely impacted the speed at which extensions were created and hence resultant user adoption.

No Integration with Google Apps

Again a reason cited in one of the analysis- Google proudly displayed Wave as its own entity. It would have been better served attached to Google Apps similar to the way Google Buzz was tied to Gmail, with Google suggesting users try it out for certain collaboration functions in Google Docs or Sites.
Integration between products is one of the key problems faced with most big sized tech. companies that typically have multiple products in its portfolio. Big companies usually expands their portfolios by acquiring other companies. Acquisitions usually have a negative engineering impact when it becomes to integration because of conflicting architectures.
The book that I referred earlier- “How Google Works” described Google Wave as an ahead of its time product. I politely disagree to this given the fact that now, 5 years later, the world still doesn’t see a compelling reason to have a product like this. To be fair to Google Wave and its superior technology, Google did use the pieces of Wave platform in Google+ and Gmail. But hearing Eric Schmidt say that Google liked the Wave UI represents a sort of disconnect between what users felt and what management saw the product. At the core, this aspect is something that’s common across most product failures.

Please do share your thoughts, ideas around this blog.

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