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Why We Are Cautious About Google’s Wave

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About two years ago, I wrote a column for Business 2.0 magazine entitled “Why We Hate E-mail.”

E-mail became the Internet’s first killer app — and therein lies the problem. As software goes, e-mail is almost socialist: From each according to his ability, to each whether or not he needs it. E-mail ought to be reinvented to meet the needs of our always-connected lives…E-mail has become a crutch, a way of passing the buck. Want to make an appointment? That’s 10 messages back and forth. Then there are corporate updates, birthday announcements, forwarded jokes, and (if you’re me) the occasional amorous ditty. Here’s where e-mail’s socialism turns from strength to weakness: It doesn’t matter if the message comes from a spammer hawking Viagra, your wife asking you to pick up some wine, your boss telling the company that Monday is a holiday, or a client asking for a meeting at his office at 11 a.m. In today’s inboxes, all e-mail messages are equal.

Like Fred Wilson, general partner at Union Square Ventures, the tyranny of email had me wistfully wishing for something more. As I went on to note:

In today’s inboxes, all e-mail messages are equal. In reality, of course, some are more equal than others. Spam, alerts, and calendar items all need to be treated separately. A smart inbox would — all in one interface — catch spam in junk filters, display the wine reminder in an IM, move company news to an RSS feed, and intelligently negotiate appointment requests with your calendar in the background.

So yesterday, as I was watching the Google (s goog) executives present Google Wave at Moscone Center here in San Francisco, I was genuinely excited by the potential of this new application. It was everything I had dreamed of. My immediate thought, which I shared on my Twitter stream, was: Well Microsoft’s (s msft) SharePoint team had better be worried because Wave is an extensible platform, with a lot of APIs, and as such could soon become a massive headache for Redmond’s fastest-growing business group. But it was clearly more than just that.

Nevertheless, I wanted to withhold any additional judgment until I’d had a chance to spend time with the product (and not look at it on the big screen). I also wanted to attend the press conference to hear more about what the execs had to say. More importantly, I needed time to think about it. In the interim, Jordan did a good job of summing up the pros and cons of Google Wave. We collaborated closely on his post, and I’m glad we’re being cautious. For it’s not that we don’t believe in the technology, but when something is described as game-changing and the greatest thing since sliced bread, it behooves one to pause and think.

It’s easy to arrive at conclusions that lack veracity. Others might be swayed by the winds and be wildly optimistic, but let’s just say that, thanks to my age and nature, I prefer to veer between “optimism” and “cautious optimism” when it comes to the prospect of new, ground-breaking technologies. “Email is the most successful protocol on the planet…we can do better,” is how Lars Rasmussen, one of the creators of the platform, described the ambition of the effort. He described it as a whole new communication system. No doubt about it –- too new.

My biggest question about Google Wave is how the company is going to bring about a behavior change and find viral growth in order for it to become the standard Google wants it to become. The company wants it to be an open protocol so that people can build their own Waves and at the same time collaborate and federate.

No one doubts the audacity of the idea, but for a project that has been a few years in the making, one would surely like to get some specifics. None were forthcoming during the press conference, however. I asked Google executives, among them co-founder Sergey Brin, these questions:

Why do you think the time for it is now? How do you think you can make it replace email? How long do you think it will take?

“Google Maps was on the edge of browser capability and the Wave is pushing the browser capability further and further,” Brin replied, pointing to the emergence of client (browser) technologies and the increasingly changing nature of communications. But the rest of my questions were brushed aside, mostly because they asked for specifics.

A day later, when thinking about Wave, I am reminded of one of my favorite television shows, “My Boys.” In a recent episode, one of the characters on the show, Mike, claimed that he could strike out a big-league hitter. He was still pitching as the episode ended.

Google’s claim of replacing email sounded much like Mike’s boast. The reality of doing it would be much harder than making the claim. Don’t get me wrong – I want Google Wave to succeed. It is, after all, the product of my dreams.

50 Responses to “Why We Are Cautious About Google’s Wave”

  1. I think this blog misses some of the bigger picture.

    On monetization, you may be correct in that it fails to displace Sharepoint. I’m not sure if that is their aim, though maybe it should be. Meanwhile if I was Microsoft, I’d be focused on trying to implement Wave, since its open source, and then to use its software development capabilities to expand on it and make the MS suite more powerful. I think its more likely the two platforms become complementary long-term. Someone else devising the email protocols didn’t keep Microsoft from producing Outlook.

    There are so many practical, simple ways to expand the functionality to help my software company overcome basic problems that my head is spinning. Internally, we are using chat clients, email, CRMs, and collaberation tools.. this can greatly enhance all of that significantly.

    I consider myself a Google skeptic for some of the same reasons others have. They have failed for the most part beyond search to make any money.. getting too caught up with the latest, cool stuff instead of really understanding how to make money or even make other killer apps of true significance.

    In my field, Google has been trying to enter our space as a partner, but we’ve been completely unimpressed with their solution and team and they seemed to have missed the key elements that we’ve told them were necessary to be successful, so we’ve largely held off and there solution hasn’t gone anywhere yet.

    But Wave can truly increase the productivity of my team significantly. Maybe not the existing Wave client as it stands, but another product that will build off of it.

  2. I agree that Google hasn’t taken the initiative the make Wave viral. Ive rarely heard of it and most of my peers never have. But I’m not Id want Google selling my info, Yea theyd offer “great” free stuff based on my likes and interests but how targeted will these ads/offers actually be? Will the money Google receives ultimately over ride the users and their satisfaction? Im almost to fast to say yes. I take AdSense and Adwords as an example. Adwords has seen numerous face lifts and releases while Adsense on the other hand has seen slim to none and still has a few major reported bugs when it comes to distributing funds. Think about it…

  3. So why would I be mad at googl for making money off of my data? I would sign away my privacy for awesome free stuff anyday. They use it to sell to advertisers so that they can try to sell me stuff I want to buy I hardly look at ads on google or in gmail anyway, but sometimes I do and I come across a gem that I may not have been offered if not for the folks at google. Those ads could easily just be random crap sold to the highest bidder, but no, in exchange for giving me android, gmail, google voice, maps, docs, calender, and now wave for free, all I have to do is allow them to use my data to make the ad space they have to sell to make money actually relevant to my life? Yeah, again, sign me up! Btw, great post!

  4. Google Wave seems promising a new digital interactivity and created high expectations among surfers. I like some features such as ability to reproduce the talks (playback), Translate in real time when we communicate with someone speaking another language, and it’s integration with Twitter and other social networks. Google Wave really can turn into a revolution in social conversation!

  5. The way it will “replace” email is by building a bridge between the wave and the email protocol. I can then use wave, you will receive email. For you it will look like it always did – messy, unstructured, etc. For me, it will probably be quite a different experience. It will take time to convince you to switch (after all, some big company in Redmond just loves their Exchange servers) but it will happen eventually.

    If the bridge works, I can see companies like mine switch to wave in an instant. The benefits for our type of work are so significant, I can’t wait to see them materialize.

  6. Vinny

    its a collaboration stack, which can be used to build any service…a facebook substitute or email. What they demonstrated was only an example of what you can do with it. It’s amazing and will become very popular in ways we have not yet imagined.

  7. It’s difficult to talk about a product which I haven’t been able to actually use yet. But Wave seems to be a diligent effort to implement ideas that I and others have been suggesting to the Gmail Team for a long time. I see now that their apparent indifference was rather a cloak of secrecy. It is good to realize that they were actually listening to feedback all along!

  8. MaxieB is right, Google would not only get to profit off ads, but scraping huge amounts of data from people’s now externalized email and social networking communications.

    Surely we have to be concerned when one giant monopoly owns all our attention and activities online in this fashion.

    The worst thing about Google Wave, however, is that it virally spreads that insidious wiki culture in which everything is constantly open to be edited by everybody, but of course, as on Wikipedia, only a few cadres end up controlling it. “Playback” isn’t sufficient restraint on this.

    Google Wave is collectivization of the expression of the many for the economic and political advantage of the few.

    • bojan

      Wave is a platform and a protocol. So you could make your own server and have nothing to do with Google. Then your data would not be available to Google(just like your non Gmail email accounts). That means no Google making money on your data, if that’s what you are worried about.

      • MaxieB

        Do you “really” think Google is spending multiple millions on Chrome & Wave, investing in TV advertising etc simply because they are good guys and there’s nothing in it for them besides felling all warm and fuzzy inside?

        Of course not, there’s no way Google is going to invest in Wave and just hand it to you to run on your own server/hardware with no interaction with Google servers. Even if they do, 95% of people won’t pay for a Wave server when they can use Google’s for free so they will monetize off 95% of the people.. and probably also off the other 5% who own a Wave server and connect to a free Google hosted one.

        My original comment still stands, from Google own words ““Email is the most successful protocol on the planet”. Simply put they are monetizing http, and saw the pop email protocol untapped and the amount of data divulged on social networking platforms such as Facebook/Twitter/MySpace etc and said.. You know what, lets mash that up and *Wave* the cash.

        I’m all for new communications technologies, but not when a company such as Google is behind it.

  9. les madras

    hope its not like the products that wanted to take on cisco, checkpoint, netapp etc with a single appliance that solved dozens of problems. like the bad las vegas buffet, inedible but all you can eat.

  10. Om, I’m an ongoing fan of your site. Clearly Google’s marketing hype was over-the-top (At a technical conference? Surely not!), but the title and the tone of yesterday’s post was over-correction, not caution. Caution is “wait and see” not beat back marketing-speak on a product that was only announced a few hours before. I have no opinion on Wave yet, but I’m glad it’s there to shape the discussion.
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

  11. Om, I’m an ongoing fan of your site. Clearly Google’s marketing hype was over-the-top (At a technical conference? Surely not!), but the title and the tone of yesterday’s post was over-correction, not caution. Caution is “wait and see” not beat back marketing-speak on a product that was only announced a few hours before. I have no opinion on Wave yet, but I’m glad it’s there to shape the discussion.

  12. The Google Wave problem I see is that it seems like a solution targeted to a problem that we experience only about 2% of the time. We’ve spent years, even decades, making fun of the bloatware in Microsoft Word, where no single human ever uses more than 15% of its functionality, and here comes Google’s ambitions to recreate the same for the Internet under the auspices of the newly termed “Page’s Law”.

  13. Kontra

    Om, I don’t think you’ve spent enough time to think through the issues of embeddability, extensibility, federation, etc. Wave is a pretty darn good stab at these. If the open source community embraces it, be hard to see why not, I’m sure it can also help shape Wave’s eventual direction.

    Does Google want analytics of the Wave data? Of course. But that’s the compromise we make. At least Google is trying. Who else is?

    • Kontra

      I have been thinking about this a lot. I like the idea behind the product and other aspects of it, but it is asking for too much of a behavior change. The question is how…. I don’t see anything that Google described that would force me to do that. It is something I have an issue with, not the technology per-se.

      • Om,

        When Google initially married email and chat in Gmail, I was not very enthusiastic about it. I preferred to use the separate GTalk client for chatting. At some point, which I am not even aware of, it just became more convenient to simply chat in the same place where I emailed. I hardly ever open the GTalk client now.

        I can see a similar thing happening with Wave. If a single interface marries email, chat, photo sharing, document sharing, so on and so forth, and if it is done right, I think lot of people will end up using it as the default online communication platform. The final product we use may not necessarily be from Google. Somebody else might create a great version of the Wave. But I can easily imagine something like this being very popular within 5 years from now.


      • Okay, listen. The moment I started to learn about Wave (the hour and 20 or so minute video) I thought that this was something that will change as we communicate. Keep in mind, the immediate advantages are not for the end-user. They are for the developer, no doubt about it. This is some really powerful website/web architecture building materials? Who cares if Google has their name stamped on it if thats what they want? You think they don’t make enough money in AD revenues? They don’t strike me as a particularly greedy company (in today’s capitalism though that isn’t saying much) This development model has potential that I think not even the creators have realized at this point.
        So they original point. This is for developers. Did you not see how much Rasmussen was looking to the audience’s reaction? Sure he was confident, this is a hell of a piece of software, but at the same time he was nervous to an extent. They NEED the developers. This isn’t something that will end with Google creating an amazing service for customers to use. Someone is going to create something game-changing FROM what they have created. Sure it is awesome and will make things much different, but I see it as more of a grand stepping stone. That said I think that such as AJAX has driven dynamic and SUCCESSFULL (key word) websites because of inter-connectivity, responsiveness and fluidity, how could something that takes all of those to the next level not succeed? and furthermore, how successful of a website do you think can be with this kind of creation method?

  14. Rohit Nallapeta

    The email and a stream of thought all encompassed into one, its like having FB,Twitter,gamil,chat and apps meshed into one…it’s more of a social nature. Then with API’s coming in its like one huge dept store of apps etc…guess there is nothing called as privacy, although i agree the idea is simply brilliant!

  15. MaxieB

    “Email is the most successful protocol on the planet…we can do better,”


    “Email is the most successful protocol on the planet, and it’s a protocol nobody “owns” so we though it was a good idea to make some changes so we own it and profit off it. Can you think of the data we can harvest… Waves!”

    I hope the way we communicate advances, but i hope Google has NO part in the ownership of such technology.

      • jjguy

        This is where I think Google will take advantage. They will offer free hosting of wave servers since they have the infrastructure to do so. Then they’ll index all the data on their servers instantly. Then they own the web. No one will be able to index data as fast as them because most wave servers will be hosted by them. The realtime web will be owned by them. Bye bye twitter.

  16. Great post. You are right that the key here will be adoption. I think that in the worst case, Wave will be something like the Concorde: a great technology which will not become mainstream but will whose components will have fundamental impact on the industry going forward – the web is ready to become a federated event bus and wave will accelerate the transition. The other benefit for google is that it is a great case study for Chrome, GWT and Google App Engine: eating their own dog food can only make those technologies better. Finally it is a 2-0 against Microsoft Exchange in term of innovation: Microsoft if going to have to react to block Google and all the time they spend on this front is time that they do not spend on Search. Thanks for this post and have a great week end!

  17. If successful, I think Wave should be much more than an ’email replacement’. The core premise – shared documents edited in real-time with real-time sharing of updates – is simple and elegant – even obvious in a cloud context.

    I think the essence of the criticism is – it’s very ambitious and as such there’s a reasonable chance it might fail – especially if Google is unable or unwilling to make a long-term commitment to it. But couldn’t this be said about any ambitious project?

    • No one argues the ambition or audacious nature of the project, but when you are going to take out an “incumbent” and that is what is missing, so we are cautious and not wildly optimistic. if you want to read that as criticism, well I can’t quite argue with that logic.

      • I think the title in the previous post was rather silly and sensational. And this post seems to be an effort to make up for it. While I think being cautious is fine, its so sad for a blog of this standing to try writing stuff like ‘arrogance with ..’. Cmon!

  18. I think you hit the nail on the head. I watched the keynote presentation via YouTube and there is a lot to be excited about with the wave platform. But, the questions of ubiquity, implementation and change management quickly rise to the surface. I hope it succeeds and I can’t wait till it gets stable enough for us “normal” folks to get our hands on it – but, I am in wait and see mode at the moment. If the demo was any indication of the technologies prime time readiness it will be at least another year before it hits the street.

  19. Assuming mainstream adoption of the eventual Google Wave client, the game change will arrive when developers deploy Wave robots & gadgets that tap into the conversation in realtime and act accordingly. That’s where I’d be innovating.

  20. “My biggest question about Google Wave is how the company is going to bring about a behavior change and find viral growth in order for it to become the standard Google wants it to become.”

    Doesn’t wave = gmail 2.0? Instead of having your IM sidebar and additional labs widgets it’ll all just be in wave format. And from there – anyone you message gets the hotmail-esque “want better email? get gmail” footer.

    • Second that.

      Moving the gmail userbase to wave should be a breeze – I’ll gladly replace my current browser based communications app (gmail) with something better from the same vendor.
      Many small organizations, not married to MS Exchange and Outlook (like my own) are already using google apps for email, calendar, docs etc. Moving over to Wave makes a lot of sense.

      Admittedly, taking over large enterprises would be more difficult…