Why Did Google Wave Die?

Email is broken. In many ways. So are instant messaging and document collaboration. Google Wave was supposed to fix a number of these problems by making threaded and multi-user conversations easier to manage, and by introducing realtime chatting and collaboration into the mix. But Wave's failure is also a fantastic illustration of a great idea and brilliant technical implementation totally overpowered by some absolutely awful product design. Google's famously spartan approach to search was the fuel for their explosive growth in the early 2000s. While sites like MSN and Yahoo were getting more complex and portal-like, Google offered an absurdly simple alternative: enter your query and click the search button.

Somehow over the years Google has lost this simplicity in many of its products, with Google Wave as the paradigmatic example. Wave was an engineering marvel, and I'm quite certain its mix of syncrhonous and asyncrhonous functionality will be used to good result in a number of other products, but the user interface was just dreadful. It made no sense and I couldn't really ever figure out how to use it--and I work in software for a living. Imagine my mom using it.

Ultimately, I think Google Wave suffered from three fatal product design flaws:

  1. Complicated user interface - it's kind of like an instant message client, except that you have to click something every time you want to add a new message. It's kind of like email, but if I archive a thread and someone else adds a new message to it, the thread appears back inbox. It's kind of like document collaboration, but doesn't have all the features of Google Docs, let alone MS Word.
  2. No integration with email / docs / chat - Wave promised to solve the problems inherent in email, instant messaging and document collaboration, but if Google wanted it to supersede these things (did they even want to?) they should've integrated it into GMail, GChat or Google Docs. I don't need yet another place to check messages, what I need is a better way to manage my existing communications. I often had to remind people over email or IM to check Google Wave for a message I sent them.
  3. Meatball Sundae - I've never read Seth Godin's book Meatball Sundae but I love the metaphor. A meatball sundae is "the unfortunate result of mixing two good ideas." Google Wave was a deep-fried meatball sundae. Was it email, instant messaging, document collaboration? It was all three, and yet it was none. The best products solve one problem brilliantly well. Google Wave tackled three problems and solved none of them.
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