Google Wave

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Google Wave

This image from a video Google produced to explain Wave's features was intended to communicate the way that it could serve as a sort of group e-mail experience.

Screen capture by HowStuffWorks staff

Perhaps the most famous Google failure, Wave also bears the distinction of being the biggest Google failure. A collection of unnecessary features bundled together in unnecessary -- and often bewildering – ways, Google Wave tried to be everything to everyone in terms of content sharing, in the same way that Google+ is attempting to take over the social realm. And while it's not yet certain whether Google+ will flatline, the time to mourn Wave has come and gone.

Want to send an e-mail? You already have Gmail, but if for some reason you'd like to send that e-mail to a hard-to-understand list of people through a counterintuitive process, Wave can help. Would you like to turn that e-mail into a song, or a video, or a conversation about songs and videos that itself contains and is made of those things? Want to juggle people coming in and out of that conversation, never quite sure to whom you're talking or whether they've been following the conversation the whole time? Want the always-on capability to form sidebar conversations alongside the main conversation, creating a constant -- and possibly valid -- paranoia that everybody is talking about you behind your back? Would you like to take all the most irritating lags and social awkwardness of chat rooms and combine them -- along with the worst things about online document-collaboration, online flame wars and awkward parties where your work friends meet your regular friends -- into a single application that none of those people know how to use either?

Of course, it wasn't really that bad. What gets left out of this story is the fact that -- like most Apple products, like most presidents -- the anticipation of a product release can easily overshadow any actual value. If we've paid enough money and gotten enough usefulness out of a so-so project, we'll swear the Emperor is wearing the best clothes in town. But if the product is free, or we feel defeated by it, then it becomes the worst thing that has ever happened.

Google Wave is no different. It made its debut through the "invite" system that was in vogue in 2009, like the tremendous Google Voice, and like Voice, it spread into the culture through the people most likely to turn backflips on release day, and of course most likely to talk about it for at least the two weeks either side. A risky strategy, for a project with no broad-spectrum use that would take more than those two weeks to learn, even for a hard-headed Google fanatic. Even as performance art, or a joke.

The fact is, even seasoned programmers can have trouble explaining to the layman why Wave was so unloved. Part of it is the complexity of code language, the precise reasons that it failed to integrate with other Google features and suites, that don't enter into here. And part -- likely most -- of it is that anticipation-backlash effect. But perhaps the "right place, wrong time" aspect is also in play. Whatever features users liked in Wave will likely make their way into a future project or acquisition. Those pieces of the broken and abandoned products that make up Google's Island of Misfit Toys can always be picked up, dusted off and integrated into a new configuration.

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