As you may have heard, Google is giving up on Google Wave. Wave was a new communication and collaboration tool that was meant to reinvent email. I know I'm pretty late on this (the announcement came two months ago) but I want to talk about what Google's failure can teach us about software in general.
Ever since Google announced that Wave will soon be no more, many tech blogs have discussed what they did wrong. There are a lot of common criticisms such as how no one understood what Wave was good for, and that because Wave was a closed Beta for so long no one could actually communicate with their friends. Criticisms like that are perfectly valid (we could spend all day talking about all the mistakes Google made), but I don't think they're very interesting or useful observations. Talking about all the specific things that were poorly executed won't help us make better decisions in the future. Instead, I want to pick one high-level lesson that I'm taking away from the Wave experiment.
So what is my one lesson? I've mentioned it before on this blog, but I think the main takeaway from Wave is that software doesn't exist in a vacuum. Technology isn't important by itself. The only thing that matters about technology is how it affects peoples' lives.
Many people didn't like Wave as a product, but I get the feeling that most people thought it was great. The tech was amazing. The design was decent. The idea was innovative. And best of all, it was actually useful. It really was the best overall communication and collaboration tool out there. Better than email. Better than IMing. Better than sharing documents.
Wave's failure had nothing to do with the quality of the product. Wave failed because it didn't solve any problems for its users. In most ways, Wave was better than any other product, but Wave wasn't really trying to replace any of those things. It was another tool that could be used in addition to all the existing ones. Maybe Wave was meant to one day replace email, but it's clear that Google didn't intend for that to happen right away. As a matter of fact, Google offers other products that already handle everything Google Wave did (gmail, gchat, google docs).
So Google never intended for you to stop using any of the tools you were already using. They wanted you to use another one on top of everything else. But that doesn't really solve any problems. If you still have to use everything you were already using, then adding Wave to your toolbox just makes your life more complicated. It doesn't matter if Wave is the best product because you still have to use everything else anyway.
That's what I mean when I say that software doesn't exist in a vacuum. You can't evaluate software as if it's the only tool you'll ever use. You have to consider how your entire life will be impacted by software. If you're in the software business like I am, don't design a great product. Design a great user experience. Think about what your users' lives are like with your product and without it. That's all that matters. Google didn't seem to take this approach, and I personally think that's why Wave failed.