Yesterday (August 5), Google announced that it was ceasing attempts to make Google Wave a viable standalone product. Considering the fanfare that the product received in the run-up to its general release (announced at Google I/O in May), it was no surprise the story burned across the blogosphere and the press. In following some of the Twitter traffic, what I found interesting was some of the low-level chuckling I saw from some competing vendors in the collaboration software space. Why? Well, before I get into that, let me make a couple of stipulations:

  1. Google has a history of less-than-stellar product launches. In tossing Google Wave on the scrap heap (and parceling out some of its components as open-source software), the brainchild of Lars and Jens Rasmussen joins a growing number of failed products. Some of this can be attributed to mistakes that Google has made time and again in marketing and product design (my colleague Tom Grant pointed out some of this with Google Buzz). But you also have to factor in that because Google has such a high profile, every time a product under performs it draws a lot of attention, making each failure seem large. But this does not seem to slow the search engine giant's innovation engine, which brings me to my second point.
  2. Google's entrepreneurial engineers will keep churning out products. If you haven't noticed, Google encourages its employees to come up with concepts and then turn them into functioning prototypes. Because Google nurtures creative thinking, and doesn't seem to mind failing with bold ideas, Google Wave's demise won't cow the Mountain View, CA, corporation.

With that in mind, I can understand why Google's latest misstep has some of its competitors tut-tutting: You could argue Google is still new to the collaboration software business and, as they've done in the past, they tossed a product out to the market without fully thinking it through. While I agree that this is certainly part of the problem, I view Wave as a cautionary tale for the collaboration software space as a whole. Why? Like many vendors in the market, Google wasn't just proposing a new collaboration tool — they were claiming a revolutionary way for people to work together. As a means of differentiation, many vendors in this market have been rolling out tools that make a similar claim. So before product managers and marketers at these firms completely write off the collapse of Google Wave, let's take a moment to run down three things Google (hopefully) learned and what other collaboration software vendors offering new working paradigms should consider.

  • Disruptive technology needs to be clear in what it disrupts. When Google Wave was introduced, there was a scramble to figure out what it actually replaced: maybe email, maybe instant messaging, maybe Web conferencing. Of course, at the same time, Google was still offering a series of solutions — Gmail, Google Talk, and Google Docs — that collectively offered a lot of the functionality that Wave was bundling together: document sharing, real-time communication, and co-authoring with an underlying presence engine. Competitor Zoho had been tying co-authoring with instant messaging for some time, and Microsoft has combined presence, document sharing and co-authoring to Microsoft SharePoint 2010. So, at the end of the day, did Wave really replace anything? As competitors offer up their world-altering ways of working, the product managers and marketers have to ask the same question — is this really a disruptive technology or something more complementary? If it's the latter, that should be made clear and it must be positioned accordingly.
  • End users can't be relied upon to develop the use cases. Going hand-in-hand with the disruptive point, Google never really explained what someone should do with Wave. It goes without saying that if you're going to propose a new way for someone to work, you should tell him/her how to work in the new way. If you don't do that, then you're left waiting around for customers to tell you what they've done — which means that you have no marketing momentum because the market has to sort out how to define and accept the product on its own. So, as Google found, you end up with a small pool of enthusiastic, imaginative users but a largely apathetic addressable market that never really got your point and that have lost interest by the time you collect initial use cases. So for those product managers and marketers bringing their own revolutionary collaboration tools to market, you need to have an idea of how an information worker should use this tool before you launch the product.
  • End users are reticent to work in new ways. If you've followed my research on the collaboration software space, you know the story: outside of email and calendars, information workers use the rest of the collaboration software tool kit in small numbers. This is the 9x email problem: simply put, given that information workers can choose to use a new, better technology (Wave), their decision to stick with an old technology (email) is decided on less "rational" ideas like "improved efficiency" and on more personal notions of "comfort." I've phrased this as "Do end users really want a new way to work or just for the way they work to be a little better?" To this end, I've argued that the collaboration and social technologies should be integrated into business applications and business processes in which information workers already reside. For product managers and marketers with new collaboration technology, this begs the question of how you're tying into the way specific groups of information workers do their jobs and how you're improving those established processes.