Wave Goodbye

Not to long ago I wrote a post about why I believe it’s so important to build technology that supports business process, rather than building process that supports business technology. It got me thinking, curiously, about Google Wave.

If you’re not familiar with Google Wave, here’s Google’s very own 2009 video on the subject, Google Wave Overview.

What Google did with Wave was an entire re-imagining of email. Throw out everything that’s gone before, and redesign email (or rather, electronic business communication) from the ground up, the way it would look if it were conceived today, and we had today’s technology to take advantage of.

It was a huge failure.

Well actually only in the world of Google is a service with a reported 3 million active users a “huge failure” but still, you get the point. The service was shut down at the start of 2012.

The technology lives on and a lot of the development Google did for wave can today be found in Google Docs, Hangouts, and some other places too (it was all open source).

My friend and colleague Matt wrote some time ago about pilots and their place within proper project management (and the frequent misuse of the term and concept).

Would you run your personal finances this way? Would you buy a lawnmower and figure out how you’ll use it afterwards, even though you live in a high-rise condo? Of course not.

I’ve been trying to think of a corresponding analogy for what happened with Google Wave. I guess it would be that you wouldn’t buy a lawnmower that required you to replace your lawn. And didn’t let you invite friends and family to enjoy your yard with you unless they too had purchased a compatible lawnmower.

The problem, in real terms, was that Google had built a tool to replace email, but for early adopters (like me) it was a very lonely place. I couldn’t really use it because the people I wanted to communicate with didn’t use it.

Specifically what I believe Wave needed was backward compatibility with email somehow. Maybe Wave users would get to enjoy the advanced features Wave offered, but email users would also have a method to at least participate in the conversation until they too chose to adopt the better technology.

Let’s bring this all back to process management and development. I’ve never run or been a part of a process improvement initiative that didn’t being with current-state process mapping in one form or another. Improvements are usually iterative, but even if they’re not and we’re building from the ground up the conversation still involves a transition plan. I’m doing some process mapping work right now for a project which is all about the transition plan.

Quite what Google were thinking with Wave I’m not sure. They’re a technology company and they’re well known for trying innovative things and finding out later whether or not they work. I can therefore forgive them for being focused on technology rather than process, but it doesn’t make it less surprising to me that this particular experiment didn’t work out. Most organizations can’t (and shouldn’t) throw money at technology development the way Google does, so let’s make sure we’re spending our money wisely, thinking in a process-first way, and being specific about the need a particular technology is going to meet for us. If we don’t we’re going to end up with a lot of lawnmowers in high-rise condos.

I do miss Wave though, I thought it had the potential to become a fantastic tool. There are alternatives and derivatives out there, but for some reason they all seem to be very lonely places.

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