Plenty of observers have been happily gloating about the failure of Google Wave, the real-time collaboration tool that the company has said it is shutting down due to lack of interest. But shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that Google is willing to try new things?

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There has been an ocean’s worth of schadenfreude spilled over Google’s decision to kill Wave, its experimental real-time collaboration tool. The reasons: It never had a purpose, it was too over-engineered in typical Googley fashion, it was a collection of features in search of a need, and so on. But shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that Google was willing to experiment at all? That’s Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s view — he told reporters at the Techonomy conference that “we celebrate our failures,” saying the company encourages staff to take risks and possibly fail. And he is right to do so.

Yes, Wave was a hodgepodge of geeky features (hey look — I can see you typing while I’m typing!) without any real compelling use case. But the idea that people might want to collaborate in new ways isn’t a crazy one, and the concept of blending wiki-type features with instant messaging and document management isn’t really all that far-fetched either. It’s possible that Wave was just a little too early, and that most people haven’t even gotten used to the idea of Google Docs, let alone an all-in-one Swiss Army knife version. That doesn’t mean it was a stupid idea.

In any case, the impulse to experiment with such things and then release those features and services into the wild is arguably one of the best things about Google — such as the 20-percent projects that occasionally become Gmail or Google News or one of the company’s other big success stories. John Gruber of the Apple blog Daring Fireball writes that he is surprised Wave was even shipped, and that no other company would ever have released it. That may be true — and Apple certainly wouldn’t have, since its focus on hyper-designing everything borders on the pathological.

But that said, isn’t one of the positive things about web companies that they can experiment with things, and “fail quickly and fail often?” Isn’t that what so many startup advisors keep telling companies they should be prepared to do if they want to succeed? It’s kind of refreshing that a company the size of Google is still tossing experiments out into the world to see what happens to them and then try to learn from that. There aren’t many other large companies that are willing to do that.

So maybe Wave was poorly designed, or over-engineered, and didn’t deserve to live. But we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn Google for releasing it or experimenting with it — if anything, we should be cheering them on. Here’s a video of Eric Schmidt talking about Wave and other topics such as net neutrality at the Techonomy conference:

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Iwan Wolkow

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  1. The notion of failing early and failing often is suppose to be about doing smaller betas and getting feedback to make it better. Not sure we are talking about creating behemoths, having huge launches and tonnes of hype only to realize that your product wasn’t relevant or usable.

    While I get the sentiment (and the pithy retweets), I’m just not sure it applies here.

    1. Thanks, Leigh — although I’m not sure it’s fair to call Wave a “behemoth” or to say that it had tonnes of hype. It was promoted at I/O but a lot of the hype came from other places, not Google.

      1. No, Google hyped Wave like crazy.

  2. This post seems correct, though I think we’re seeing the difference between Google’s geeky view of success and the market’s business view.

  3. I consider this a good strategy to google.

    Insights: http://www.liquida.com/focus/2010/08/05/google-wave/

  4. Ian Betteridge Thursday, August 5, 2010

    I think you’ve missed out the biggest reason for the Schadenfreude: Google massively over-hyped it at Google I/O. I’m still scratching my head about why, as it was pretty clear to almost everyone that Wave was a great technology demo without a clear market. It also didn’t have an obvious route to contributing significantly to Google’s revenues. So why the hype?

    1. Thanks, Ian — although as I said to Leigh, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that it was “massively over-hyped” by Google. I think a lot of that hype came from elsewhere. Thanks for the comment though.

      1. Well, the talk from the stage was, if I remember the quote correctly, about Wave being “what email would be like if it was designed today”. That’s a pretty big statement to make :)

      2. yeah cuz i’m sure Google didn’t have a blogger outreach and PR strategy ;)

        They just launch stuff and everyone comes! Google has many products that stay pretty much to the side and don’t get too much press. If something at Google gets hype I find it very hard to believe they didn’t at least light the fires beneath it.

  5. Keep in mind that some features from Google Wave have now been added to Google Docs.

    1. Yes, thanks — I mentioned that in the post.

  6. Toby Schumacher Thursday, August 5, 2010

    In general, yes it is fine to fail especially on the web. However, Wave was pushed even as late as this spring as a business tool. Imagine if you were a champion of Wave in your corporation and now in 5 months it will disappear. I would imagine any future prospect of both
    A) using any new Google technology and
    B) career advancement
    has just gone out the window this morning. So yes, experimenting then failing is fine for Orkut or trying a new cookie recipe. But for a tool that they were pushing businesses on, no that isn’t acceptable to kill it so soon and leave their biggest proponents out to dry.

  7. Does anyone but geeks/techies like the concept of half-baked ideas, then iterate/update often? I think “normals” like stability instead.

    1. That’s an interesting point, PXLated — but I don’t think non-geeks ever wind up using any of the real beta apps or services like Wave or Buzz, because it never occurs to them or they never come across them for whatever reason. So it probably isn’t an issue in most cases.

      1. It is an issue if you want/need something to be successful and mainstream to carry it forward. Geek/techie network effects only get you so far.

    2. @PXLated: Amen to that, brother.

  8. Disclaimer – I tried Wave and didn’t like it, but…
    @Mathew – good post, agree wholeheartedly. Tell Om, though – he tweeted that “Google doesn’t do anything well, except search”.

    @Toby – I thought they said they were dropping further development, not removing it entirely.

    @PxLated – Interesting philosophical question – depends upon where you end up, I guess. Even development within Corp IT groups has proponents of Agile/Scrum vs. the huge swaths who still favor the Waterfall approach.

  9. As an Apple fan, I would also like to celebrate the failure of the Microsoft Kin. Hooray! I hope Microsoft is brave enough to continue engaging in such bold experiments. Now that Google is also showing such bravery, it gives me great hope that they, too, will keep up with such forward-looking risk taking and continue to throw digital spaghetti against the industry wall to see what fails. Heck, we could be up to our neck in delicious Google failure spaghetti. How great would that be? Google, I laud you for shipping one failed product after another. You too could be as great as Microsoft one day.

  10. Mathew,

    I put my take up over at Telecompetitor already but you hit the nail on the head with “impulse to experiment” as being the key factor here. The “impulse to experiment” is what makes it (more) permissible for other companies with lesser R&D resources to gamble on bleeding edge techniques.

    Does anyone honestly think that email alone is sustainable for business and collaboration?


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