Has Google, with its latest project, Google Wave, actually come up with the Next Big Thing in online communication, or is it yet another Googler vanity exercise? Wave is a combination of email, instant messaging and a real-time wiki — plus open architecture and APIs. Or as creators Lars and Jens Rasmussen and Stephanie Hannon put it, “what email would be if it were invented today.”
For now, Google is rolling out Wave as a developer preview and will launch to the public later. The company is looking for 3,000 adventurous, early adopter developers to “tinker” with the system and figure out “what else can we do with this?” And that’s where I stumble.
Google has a long history of launching or buying projects, only to get bored and abandon them months or years later. With Wave, as with so many Google projects, the company seems to be flinging things against the wall to see what sticks. No real thought has been given to its future beyond, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” When asked about marketing Wave during the launch Q&A, the Google reps said “We really haven’t thought about that too much.” What about advertising? “We haven’t thought about that yet.” What about competition? “It’s not something we really thought a lot about.” So what have the Googlers thought about?
Google, as a company, has failed at monetizing everything except search (and, though it’s based on the same tech, partner web sites through AdSense). Advertising on YouTube has been a failure, and is costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars a year in server costs. The culture at the company is to build first and ask questions later, typical for a company run almost top to bottom by engineers. Lucky for the Wave team, then, that search ads have been so phenomenally successful — absent such success, they would be forced to ask those hard questions about monetization and competition.
Wave could be a competitor to Outlook and Office if Google were to roll Docs/Gmail/Cal under the Wave umbrella. And as Om pointed out in a tweet, it could be a strong competitor to Microsoft SharePoint. When he asked about Sharepoint at the Q&A, however, the Googlers brushed it off, saying Wave has “far greater breadth,” and is superior because of its openness and federation model.
The breathtaking arrogance of blowing off potential competition and touting tech buzzwords rather than at least giving a cursory examination as to how one might make money from a product is the Google way. Technology is all well and good, but at some point one must go from “Look at this cool thing we’ve designed!” to “Look at all the money we’re making from this cool thing!”
Maybe it will work. Maybe Wave will take over the world. But, with the notable exceptions of Gmail and search ads, Google has a poor track record with product launches. It is really, really good at vanity exercises, though.