A Retrospective on the Disruptive Collaboration Product that wasn’t
- May 7, 2020
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It’s Friday, so it’s time for a fun post, a trip down memory lane for some of us. If you have a long enough memory in tech, you probably well remember Google Wave. It launched with great fanfare and it was really interesting in terms of what it could do and what you could do with it. Recently Team Taskade published a retrospective on the disruptive collaboration product that wasn’t. It’s a really good post-mortem on what was a really interesting product at the time:
When Google Wave previewed at the 2009 I/O conference, it was a tool like no other. Not only was it the first unified workspace and collaboration platform before the remote-work boom happened, but it also tried to solve many of the same problems we’re facing today.
Speaking as someone with an even longer memory in tech, I’d say that Google Wave was an intellectual successor to ideas like Groove (which also combined collaboration with documents, tasks, to-do’s, calendar, chat, etc.). Groove was the brainchild of Ray Ozzie, who previously created Lotus Notes.
And so, obviously, Groove is also the intellectual successor to Lotus Notes. Trying to take the ideas in Notes to the next level given nascent peer-to-peer network ideas.
Most of us now have a rather dim view of Lotus Notes, but in the early 90’s, Notes was kind of amazing. Synchronizing (rather, “replicating”) databases across all of your computers so that everyone in the company had the same data. Providing email as “just another database in Lotus Notes”, and providing a very easy to use system for designing new databases that could be replicated and used to run your business.
By the way, this all ran on computers with 4MB to 8MB of RAM… alongside an operating system, and soon a browser (Netscape!).
Groove represented some of these ideas but for a new age of software (early 2000’s) – no central server needed – peer-to-peer synchronization was the key.
Google Wave promised to allow you to assemble workflows and collaboration by leveraging the open web, as well as chat, mail, and other basic service infrastructures. It was fascinating. But as the authors of the post above have captured, it has some significant unresolved issues:
- Unclear scope and focus
- A roll-out that was both too narrow and too wide: first, too narrow to get your team collaborating, and then too wide in that they opened the floodgates, exposing lots of people to the platform at a moment when they weren’t ready to try it.
- Unclear commitment from the company they operated within
I’ll add to that, that the use of gmail for corporate email wasn’t widespread 10 years ago. There wasn’t a way to tie your corporate email id to a Google Wave if it wasn’t also a Google email address. “Little” things like this made it hard to adopt for enterprise use.
Interestingly, folks in the Business Process world had a really strong reaction to Wave – positive and negative – because they saw it as potentially a new way to bring business process collaboration together that would circumvent all of the work that went into standards like BPMN and other process definition standards, and the software built around them. We pulled a bunch of those opinions into an overview piece here, and then a followup article here.
At the time I wrote:
- It isn’t really Google’s intent to build a BPMS. They don’t think of the problem Wave is solving as a “process”. As a result, they’re unlikely to take it in that direction. I don’t think you end up with a good BPMS my accident.
- The structured parts of process are actually useful for larger organizations that actually have that kind of structure or volume.
- There is a lot of magic under the hood of a BPMS that wouldn’t be trivial to recreate using Wave. Not impossible, just not trivial. More likely is a mash-up approach like the SAP Gravity demonstration.
- It still sits outside the firewall of the corporation, and for all too many companies, that is still a regulatory problem, not to mention a security problem, for their data.
And that feels like it pretty well summed up what happened over the next couple of years as Google Wave rose and crested and crashed. I still think it was kind of amazing technical product, and I enjoyed using it myself. But it is hard to capture the zeitgeist of unstructured / collaborative work. So far, it seems that the best entrants into that space were at least partly by accident – tools built by teams collaborating on something else, that have then been published as collaboration tools (think: Slack, or 37signals, or the way people use Twitter). Maybe collaboration just needs to allow the real users to evolve the usage and then look for ways to reinforce the social norms that develop.