I’m not maintaining my blog nearly enough, but this is huge tech news. Google gave up on Wave. That is incredibly disappointing. Why? Wave was collaboration done right. Most people I know who are interested in global dialogue were interested in Wave. Most others looked puzzled, then shrugged.

Three things I’m getting out of this:

  1. At the technical level, Wave broke KISS. It was too complicated for techies to get into their mashups. This is very well described in this post. (I am reminded of another technically demanding grand unifying technology from before the net that failed spectacularly: OpenDoc… RIP)
    However, I don’t think it’s really the main issue. Wave had some simple APIs: embedding, robots and gadgets were not that hard to use.
  2. Really really brilliant technicians, which google has in spades, still don’t get user-centric design. Wave’s UI made for amazing demos, but it was never designed around user actions. For example, finding a wave was nigh-impossible, which given google’s search pedigree, was, well… sad.I’ll repeat, because I think that is a big, big problem at most tech companies, not just Google: there should be a user-centered designer in every team.
  3. Potential users did not understand when or why they might need Wave, because, well… Wave was built for collaboration and people just don’t collaborate all that much. I’m not blaming people’s deep psychology, here; most people like to collaborate, actually. It’s a systemic issue: collaboration is not built into task descriptions, performance reviews, and frankly education is still struggling with ways to evaluate team participation. (I think that might have been a wonderful application for wave, incidentally.)
    Also, frankly, formulating thoughts in writing is difficult enough for most people; a school colleague once told me “It’s very hard to write when five hands are holding the pen.” Cute, and true. But that’s why it’s so important to have tools that go beyond the pen, and are opinionated about the collaboration process. People do use revision mode in Word; people use Wikipedia.
    Actually, it’s striking how text in early wikis (think Portland Pattern Repository) long displayed hesitation between dialogue-style writing and “neutral voice” until Wikipedia thought to separate each page in two: article and discussion. And this, in my mind, is the real innovation it brought, and what was lacking in Wave, which tried to mash everything up freeform. It’s great that it was process-agnostic technically; but it would have been fundamental to propose process-strong tools on top of it. That is user-centered, and task-centered design; see point 2.

Personally, I am disappointed. Wave was, and remains, one of the most brilliant attempt at unifying human thought since Xanadu. (RIP, again.) I personally had ideas that were to build on it; I hope other players will be able to get the open-source bits up and running again, but it will never gain as much traction without Google pushing it, and that is a huge lost opportunity for the potential of human collaboration. But it’s also a symptom: we have yet to learn new ways of collaborating, and better tools are only part of the solution.