What in the Hell Was Google Wave Trying to Be Anyway?

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Ten years ago tomorrow, Google introduced an app that was meant to transform the communications space. During an hour-plus keynote presentation at Google I/O in 2009, the company’s then-Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra introduced what he called a “magical” new web app that combined email, messaging, and other features like social media and event-planning into a single funky, do-it-all tool called Wave.

The team behind Wave was led by engineers Lars and Jens Rasmussen, the brothers also behind the mapping product that would eventually become Google Maps. It was created to be a kind of one-stop-shop for messaging with a Wiki-style approach, meaning that anyone could edit anything and chime in wherever so long as he or she was included on a Wave, the name for the individual private or public mega-threads through which people communicated. Basically, it rolled all of the various tools traditionally used for organization and collaboration (think Gmail, Docs, Calendar, Twitter, chat apps, etc.) into a single product.

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One of Wave’s top features was real-time typing, meaning everyone on a Wave could see everything everyone else was typing in real time in much the way users can in, for example, Google documents. While this might work for Sheets or Docs, this does not—in my humble but correct opinion—an enjoyable workplace communications scenario make. That said, Wave did allow for users to opt out of this live feed of their every accidental keystroke or dumb idea.

Other, less fraught features included Wave-specific groups, Google Maps embeds for location-related tagging, polls, in-app document creation and collaboration tools, and what effectively amounts to Track Changes but, uh, in PowerPoint-like format and viewable via a slider. (If this sounds bizarre, it is, and you can see for yourself right here.) In-Wave chat threads were referred to “wavelets,” whereas a single message was referred to as a “blip.” These designations seem painfully corny and bad in retrospect, but then again, more than 2 billion people globally use a site called Facebook to communicate with their loved ones almost every day. Anything goes in our strange digital world, folks!

There are similarities between the tools offered by Wave and today’s workplace collaboration giant Slack. Wave’s so-called “Robots,” are similar to Slackbots in that they were meant to perform tasks like translate text, populate search results, or interact with users within a Wave. As one example, the program allowed for a Twitter integration to tweet from and aggregate to the Wave app, a function that won it applause and cheers during its demo for developers, as they had yet to learn what an unfathomable hell site Twitter would become in little more than a decade. (What I would give!)

Wave was extraordinarily ambitious in its quest to do damn near everything, including reimagining the limits and functionality of email. But in spite of itself, and primarily because its tools were confusing as hell, Wave wasn’t long for this world. Just a year after announcing the product at its annual Google I/O developers conference, Google announced that it was putting the tool out of its misery. The company said in a blog post at the time Wave had “not seen the user adoption we would have liked,” adding that parts of Wave would remain available open source “so customers and partners can continue the innovation we began.” In December of 2010, Google announced that the product would enter the Apache Software Foundation’s incubator program and would henceforth be known as Apache Wave.

Google may have been right to call Wave a “radically different kind of communication,” though, it did not do so particularly well, and it didn’t successfully convert people to its vision. Wave was not the first communications app that Google decided to mercy kill, and it definitely will not be the last. That said, even if somewhat confused about its identity, Wave seemed to have a good idea of where the communications space was going. Many of us would be hard-pressed to do our jobs without the help of Wave’s modern-day equivalent in Slack (even if Slack means that we’re never truly logged off anymore). But even Slack knows its limits. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from Wave’s failed attempt at merging all forms of communication in a single, crowded space, it’s that doing the absolute most does not always make for a great or even moderately useful tool.

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