What Does Google Wave Mean to ACM and BPM?

Scott Francis
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The Death of Google Wave is interesting.  We’ve written about Wave before, several times, but in particular when SAP put out its “Gravity” demonstration. The official Google Blog blames the closure of Wave on a lack of user adoption:
But despite these wins, and numerous loyal fans, Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked. We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product, but we will maintain the site at least through the end of the year and extend the technology for use in other Google projects. The central parts of the code, as well as the protocols that have driven many of Wave’s innovations, like drag-and-drop and character-by-character live typing, are already available as open source, so customers and partners can continue the innovation we began. In addition, we will work on tools so that users can easily “liberate” their content from Wave.
So, there’s a bunch of open source code, it looks like, that partners and customers might leverage.  But most of us, I think, would prefer to just use a finished product.  There are many other unofficial takes, here and here are two examples.  I had a few others linked, but no need – you can find such commentary easily! When Wave was announced last year, I spent some time discussing with others what it meant for BPM.  Some thought it was a game-changer, some thought it was a non-event.  The thing that became clear to me: collaboration tools like this are going to tend toward being free, or extremely inexpensive. Starting last fall, the discussion in BPM circles had often turned to “ACM” (A variant on Case Management).  Some in BPM circles would call this unstructured process. Some would call it “chaotic” or unpredictable processes/work.  Keith Swenson and colleagues even penned a book about managing such unpredictable work.  Google Wave was, to this crowd, a great example of where “knowledge work” is headed – into collaboration spaces, not into BPM software.  To me, it was just proof that email and lightweight project management tools were not going away.   If Google Wave accomplished anything, it showed:
  1. Separating yourself from email divorces you from a knowledge worker’s daily routine (some might say, process).
  2. If it isn’t trivial to involve the right people in a collaboration, then users give up
  3. Collaboration is going to be free or nearly free.  Even if it has pretty amazing features.
  4. It is really hard to do a “big bang launch” successfully.  It makes me even more impressed that Apple seems to pull this off with such regularity.
So what does it mean for BPM?  Not much.  Wave was never really about structured interaction, it was about ad-hoc interaction.  Although ad-hoc interaction is important to a good BPM strategy, no one (maybe except for SAP) was really leveraging Wave for this.  If they were, they can probably leverage the open source bits to get a jump on the development effort.  For the ACM crowd, its both good news and bad news. First, the good news:
  1. A free competitor to your products, supported by a major software company, has gone away.
  2. Hm. I think that’s it.
The bad news:
  1. If you were counting on convincing users to leave email to use your product for knowledge work, it is time to change gears.
  2. If you were expecting that being good and free was good enough… Maybe it isn’t.  Although Wave was panned in the press, it really was pretty good at what it did, though perhaps it tried to do too much.
  3. If you were expecting to charge a lot of money for general-purpose collaboration software… I think those days are over.
  4. If Wave was your favorite example of how ACM was really relevant to what people are doing… time to find a new example.
Silver lining:
  1. Collaboration software for very specific purposes will live on (aka process modeling, or services like tripIt).
  2. Some of Wave’s features will likely get absorbed by Gmail.
  3. Some of Wave’s features will likely show up in other products.
I think Keith Swenson summed it up best for the ACM folks on Twitter:
“nooooo. It can’t beeeee. :-( RT @jpmorgenthal: Google waves goodbye to Wave: http://bit.ly/bg3ixC”
Well, fans of Wave and its approach were bound to be disappointed.  I saw quite a few more comments on twitter with a more positive spin on Wave being shut down.  Google found Wave squeezed inbetween email and all the other things we do in life.  It apparently couldn’t live on its own.  I’m not sure the future of ACM, per se, is anything different.  Yes, the ACM proponents will have their analogies, and they sound compelling.  And we could even agree that a large percentage of work is not addressed by BPM today, or by, more specifically, structured process.  But what ACM proponents fail to mention is that even less work is currently addressed by purpose-built ACM software.  It *could* be, but isn’t.  It is still likely to be addressed by email, project management tools, telephone, hallway conversation, and more email. Note, I’m not arguing against ACM as a description of work, I’m just looking at the software market and not seeing it as an independent market, yet.  Willing to be proven wrong.  And I think there are a couple vendors that have the right strategy or tactics, but we’ll see if they can execute. Working on a longer collaborative post on ACM and the marketplace.  Watch this space.
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  • Scott, the description of Google Wave as being a “competitor” of either ACM or BPM seems somewhat inappropriate. I thought it would be really nice to leverage Wave protocol as a capability within collaborative systems, but I don't know anyone who seriously considered Wave as a full featured (or even minimally featured) BPM or ACM system. Maybe you know people who are stating that, and if so, you are right, time to change the example. See:

    http://kswenson.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/google

    Your conclusion about email is correct: any system that requires you to abandon email, and jump 100% to a new medium is bound to fail. That is an important lesson for any system. You have to fit into the infrastructure that people are already using.

    Also, I think your Silver Lining is correct.

  • Keith –

    Actually, it is only a competitor in the way that tools like email and ms project are competitors – in that they are tools that people can use to get knowledge work done, and people's comfort with them may detract from their willingness to try something new. This is analogous to when you sell BPM software to a client or an app to a client, where the competition is “internal development” – it isn't that they are explicitly choosing between the two, but they are implicitly choosing.

    Looks like not too many people were implicitly choosing Wave…

  • Another interesting article, reminding us how well Google Wave was initially received by press and pundits as a “game changer”:
    http://www.businessinsider.com/once-upon-a-time

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  • Scott,
    As usual, a thought provoking post. I agree with most of it – especially the parts that CollaborationACM software can't ignore email as the primary tool used for those activities. Someone once told me “People use what they like, and like what they know”. Add the corollary “even if they complain about it” and you have a good description of email, and why it will continue to be the tool of choice for ad-hoc, unstructured processes. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from Google Wave that can be applied to ACM:
    1. Don’t fight email, if you do you’ll be fighting your users
    2. Merging the worlds of process and collaboration is tricky
    3. ACM (like BPM) makes much more sense in a business setting than in a consumer setting
    4. It is going to take a while until we see mass business adoption of ACM

    I wasn't quite sure why you stated “Collaboration is going to be free or nearly free. Even if it has pretty amazing features” is a lesson to be learned from Google Wave. In my opinion, one of the reasons that Google killed Wave – there was no “Google appropriate” business model for Wave. Nobody gives anything for free (even Google) – they needed a large enough audience that would support an ad model, and there is no way Wave was going to deliver that audience in only a single year.

    You are right that very little knowledge work is actually being done using ACM – but ACM quite new, so I am not sure that is a fair way to look at it. I remember buying an early MP3 player (a brick-like thing), and being one of a small minority of people that listened to music that way. It wasn’t until Apple came along that MP3 players came into their own, and became a mainstream way to listen to music. Maybe what we need is the Apple of ACM, though I think we may be too early in the game for that.
    Jacob Ukelson – CTO ActionBase

  • Email is free. For collaboration to include email, but also cost serious $$, is going to be a tricky value proposition. The current cost of collaboration SaaS tools on the market are priced at levels that most enterprise software companies would have looked at as “free” back in the 90's. So, take my “free” with a grain of salt – more like “low-priced by today's standards”. The delta between a few dollars a month and free is getting smaller all the time. Also, collaboration features may be “free” in the sense that they may get added to other software that you're already going to have to pay for (a BPM suite, an ECM product, etc. ). We can argue about whether that's good or bad, or whether it is a winning proposition, but I think it is likely to happen.

    Regarding your last thought on ACM – my point is simply that – just because a fictional use case exists that sounds sorta like ACM, that therefore, ACM is the right answer. Your MP3 analogy is perfect.

    You could have described the “need to listen to music on the go” and said, gee, that sounds an awful lot like a Sony Walkman. Or the brick-like mp3 player you were using. But what wins in the market may be quite different (Apple's Nano iPod for example). And the examples that people have bantered about for ACM are *far* more nebulous than your mp3 example as it relates to music players. Also, I'd argue that if you say proof that one tool *doesn't* address a market is that it isn't used for that, and then say that that problem fits the new product perfectly, but no one in the market uses the product for that problem… I think that's faulty logic on its face. Inconsistent standards for one, bad logical construction for another. And yet I'm seeing it a lot in ACM discussions. I'll continue to call it out when I see that kind of faulty construction.

    My suspicion is that ACM isn't going to be a standalone market with its own Apple. That would-be ACM vendors will have to support more structured (BPM) processes to make money, and BPM vendors will have to support more ACM features to defend turf. Since I'm not a vendor I don't get to decide though, I just get to watch and comment from the bleachers!

  • Scott,
    I agree about your point about ACM possibly not being a separate market in the long run. The market will be for Business Process Management (not in the BPMS sense, but in the sense of managing processes in business) – though we are quite a ways off from that.

    In the past it was all about the data. Today the value is in the meta-data, and for business – process is the meta-data. Whoever ends up owning process management will become a mega-vendor, just as IBM and Oracle became mega-vendors by owning data management.

    Looking at the process management landscape, SAP is the closest to a pure process management mega-vendor. If they were able to get ACM+BPM right, I think they could really shake up the BPM market.

    Jacob Ukelson – CTO ActionBase

  • Jacob, appreciate your perspective and insight. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. As you say, SAP may be the closest already to the appropriately aligned mega-vendor… but I’m not confident that they’d make the right investments and adopt the right philosophy to do so (in a time-frame relevant to me anyway!)

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