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Google Wave: Flight Of The Concorde?


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Will Google be the internet's very own Concorde? Something that is used as an inspiration by hundreds of other succesful services, but ultimately a failure in its own right? Or will it change the way we communicate in the 21st Century?

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Google Wave: Flight Of The Concorde?

  1. 1. 28/9/2009 Google Wave Google Wave Flight of the Concorde?
  2. 2. 28/9/2009 Google Wave Concorde was a triumph of engineering. It dramatically slashed transatlantic flight times, offering people great service to those who could afford to pay. But today Concorde is no more. While the technology involved in its development can still be found in contemporary airliners, the needle- nosed jet is grounded for good.¹ In many ways Google Wave could turn out to be a similar example of hubris. With a project of daunting ambition, it would appear Google is seeking to provide an alternative to a swathe of ‘productivity tools’ that much of the developed world use on a daily basis: from word processing and spread-sheets, to instant messenger and email; from project management systems and the attaching of documents for amendments to VOIP services and conference calls; from apps, and wikis to blogs and forums; even from your browser to your entire operating system. All of these services are available through Wave. They have developed a whole new nomenclature for these new activities, (blips, wavelets, and robots?) along with countless innovations that many people even those with years of digital or technical experience, have found hard to grasp. Taking as their premise ‘What would email look like if it was invented today?’ the developers who brought you Google Maps have been locked in an office for several years trying to reinvent one of the fundamental, and most popular, functions of the internet. And unlike the majority of developments we have seen in the web’s brief history, this is a radical departure from existing conventions, rather than a gentle evolution. However, whilst Google is not short of funds to develop this software questions have been asked about the business case for such a venture when the only apparent revenue stream to date is that created by users willing to pay for invites to the closed beta version of the service. All the components of Wave can, in theory by embedded across the rest of the internet, including apps, and Google has recently confirmed the imminent launch of an App Store soon, which will aim to emulate the success of Apple’s iPhone version. But whilst Apple shipped over 7 million iPhones in the three months up to September, it remains to be seen whether Wave will manage such widespread adoption, especially when the simplicity of the iPhone is compared to Wave’s complexity. Wave’s interface has been described as an inbox on steroids, featuring many of the services previously listed, and is all presented in the Google aesthetic – blue and white, stripped down, not trying to impress: however there’s only so far you can strip down a product as complex as Wave. And indeed it didn’t take long for other criticisms to rain in: that the service acted like a ‘productivity sink’, presenting a bewildering level of interactivity across all of the tools offered. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the novelty of the system, and people who adopt the service will learn to manage their inputs to allow them to use the tool effectively. A more serious criticism of the service derives from this difficulty of use however. Enthusiastic users have even created a user guide to speed people through the steep learning curve Wave demands. But other major developments in the web have been simple to use, reducing barriers to entry. Most people didn’t need a manual for search, email, IM, Twitter or Facebook (apart from the privacy settings) – so why do we need one for Wave? If it is to gain critical mass, Wave is going to need to get a lot of people using the system and using it comfortably. The internet to date has been inherently disaggregated, anarchic, and full of innovation from small start-ups (step forward Wikipedia, Google, Skype, Flickr, Delicious, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al) which were then acquired by bigger players and catapulted into the wider public’s consciousness. Attempts from the big corporate of today to redefine the internet by developing their own offering (MSN Spaces, Yahoo TV, Bing, Google Talk) have not found similar levels of
  3. 3. 28/9/2009 Google Wave success, despite the financial and intellectual resource that has been thrown at them, for reasons that are not entirely clear. As Microsoft was once the fresh faced challenger to IBM, so Apple became to Microsoft as they grew, and so Google is now taking on the mantle of the large corporation that is struggling to maintain its brand and its pre-eminence in the ever expanding digital world. Many of these new entrants can be seen to have succeed through a ‘flocking’ behaviour – once a small number of people have come on board, the surrounding social groups of people converge on the web property to be with likeminded people. The problem with Wave could be that that it doesn’t have a big enough perch, the complexity being off-putting to too many people for it to gain critical mass. It could, in other words, turn out to be for the birds. But let’s for a moment imagine where Wave could take us. Thinking back to the Concorde analogy, what elements of Wave might become adopted in the mainstream of internet usage in the coming years? The idea of collaboration has been shown to work well through Wikipedia. But collaboration on individual projects is still a complicated business – ensuring changes to documents can be easily made by multiple participants and tracked back and amended further seems like a good thing. Seeing the development process could be more interesting still, allowing a brand to better understand how opinions have transmitted from individuals to groups. Allowing interested parties to participate in the presentation of a brand is an area many marketers are looking at – and again Wave can provide services that could allow this. Wave also seeks to break down barriers to working across multiple services, meaning your Google login works across lots of different sites that do different things. It’s been tried before with Microsoft Passport, as well as the non-profit OpenID organisation. It’s also currently being aggressively pushed by Facebook with Connect. But as yet a universal login hasn’t really taken off. But it could, and that would allow a great deal more data to be collected on users through a single source. This would have implications for the targeting options media buyers have – reaching people in their inboxes, messenger tools, social networks, online newspapers and web TV stations, and possibly even when they are working on documents. If users are prepared to trade this privacy for faster and better services, there could be a powerful opportunity here, but it seems unlikely that they will do so without some protest and avoidance of the service. For now, Google Wave remains in very limited access beta, and the final form of the service is still being worked on. Digital opinion, from bloggers, tweeters & the like, ranges from admiration at the scale of the project, to disgust at the ‘breathtaking arrogance’² of this ‘vanity exercise’³. Google is already facing criticism of its ambitious book cataloguing project, and has failed in other areas before. It’s really too early to say whether this project will fly, the components used in less ambitious projects, or be broken down for scrap, but it will undoubtedly influence people’s internet behaviour in the future, and is one to watch with interest. Author: Richard Dance ¹Adapted from comment on Om Malik’s post: by E. Khodabakchian; ²; ³