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Google's Wave flop: Spare us the warm fuzzies

Behemoth acting alone is suspicious

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Open...and Shut Google's Wave has crashed, but the trick for Google is to learn the right lessons from its failure.

Some suggest that Google Wave displays Google's willingness to innovate at the risk of failure, which likely gives the search giant warm fuzzies. Instead, I believe it reveals the ways in which Google can improve its third-party developer engagement.

In 2008 Google began reaching out to open-source developers in earnest. As part of that outreach, Google has fixated on the mantra of "speed to build and deploy" applications on its infrastructure, without forcing developers to become mired in the details of that infrastructure.

This is where Google Wave went wrong. It didn't abide by Google's developer playbook.

Sure, Wave attracted developers. Six thousand of them signed up, though far fewer actively developed code for Wave. But not with the same intimacy that developers collaborate on Apache projects or the Linux kernel. Or even in the same way that developers participate in Google's Android project. Wave was Google. It was hard for anyone else to get involved.

Going solo wasn't a good strategy, as Dana Blankenhorn writes:

An individual or small group going it alone is courageous. A behemoth going it alone is suspicious. Without allies, without external support, a Google project run by Google alone is in trouble.

Getting significant outside involvement was always going to be hard to attain, however, given that Google Wave wasn't merely a matter of diving into a new code base and learning some APIs. It required a complete refactoring of how one thinks about communication. That's a tough proposition for leading an open-source development project, as Alex Williams argues:

Google Wave also required people to change how they use the Web and interact with each other. It represented a melding of technologies. Developers do not like to have to adapt to big changes in behavior. Developers can not afford to take on that kind of challenge, especially with a technology as complex as Google Wave.

So why didn't Google start smaller, rather than opting to promote a rip-and-replace approach?

Consider: e-mail reaches 1.4 billion people, according to Radicati, and took 39 years to hit that penetration. Nearly four decades. Given how long it took to embed itself in our business and social processes, e-mail is unlikely to be unseated in developers' or consumers' minds with the "wave" of Google's hand (bad pun intended).

This isn't to suggest that Google shouldn't try to change how we communicate. After all, SMS is "only" 17 years old and reaches three times the number of email users, while MMS is only eight years old and has 1.9 billion active users.

Clearly, there's room for new entrants in the communications market.

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