The Long Wave Goodbye

So, with the dust settled on the failure of this noble experiment, now might be a good time to point out the underlying realities that doomed it. Because they're predictable dangers for almost any attempt to be really innovative, and we ignore them at our peril.

 The announcement a few weeks back of the demise of Google Wave left me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I admired the daring vision of Google Wave, the way it fearlessly tried to reinvent some of the most basic aspects of how we use computers to communicate. On the other hand, though I hoped to be proved wrong, I thought it was absolutely, positively, beyond the shadow of a doubt doomed to fail, from day one.

The Siren of Coolness: Geeks are only human. Creative programmers and designers come up with all sorts of ideas. If the ideas are cool enough, they'll eventually get implemented. Unfortunately, coolness doesn't always correspond to usefulness or commercial potential.

In fact, the cooler a system is, the more likely it is to receive substantial levels of early stage funding, which means paradoxically that the coolest innovations are often the ones least likely to succeed. Less cool innovations face a more taxing set of evaluations, so those that make it through to funding tend to have real practical potential.

The DeLorean was an insanely cool car.  I rest my case on this point.

Back to Google Wave. Sure it's cool to see an instant message being composed character by character, instead of waiting for the whole thing to come through. It was cool when it was done previously in research labs, and it was cool in Wave. What it wasn't, alas, was useful. For the sender, there's no margin for error if you take pride in your writing skills. The other person will see every typo, no matter how quickly you correct it, and will watch with interest as you agonize over the wording of a sensitive message. Meanwhile the recipient will end up spending more time looking at your message, as it slowly and hypnotically composes itself on his screen. It makes senders more self-conscious and vulnerable, while wasting recipients' time.

But boy, is it cool!

The good news is that Google seems to have learned this lesson. In talking about the demise of Wave, they say that pieces of Wave will live on, as they "extend the technology for use in other Google projects." Success in that endeavor won't be quite as flashy, or indeed as cool, as what they hoped for with Wave - but it's a lot more likely to actually happen. I wish them the best of luck.