On Google Wave

Google finally threw in the towel with Wave, saying that adoption rates just weren’t as they hoped. Many have said that Wave’s fail was that it launched as an invitation based service, which meant that you couldn’t really use it because Wave can only be used with other Wave users, and none of your friends had been invited yet. However, that’s not the reason; Wave still could have succeeded once everyone had access to it.

Here’s my take on it. The trouble with Wave is inherent in what it is: it’s an all-in-one communication tool. It’s part email, part chat, part word processor, part task manager, part twitter, part whatever the crap you want it to be. So where is the problem? Well, that’s not really a graspable and definable goal, so people had trouble understanding what it was really useful for in the real world.

Wave tried to do too much, which in turn made it seem like it didn’t do enough. It wanted to replace email, but it couldn’t contact people who weren’t already using it. It wanted to replace IM, but you had to use a browser for it to work, not an IM client. It wanted to replace collaboration apps, but lacked many of the task-specific features of such apps. Any app that attempts to be an end-all solution like Wave will constantly be plagued by people wanting it to do more to replace the individual tools they’re already using. It’s the age-old problem of doing many things, but doing none of them well

When it comes to successful apps, there are only two varieties: simple apps and onion apps.

Simple apps like Twitter (post your status, read others’ statuses), eBay (buy stuff auction style), Wikipedia (encyclopedia edited by everyone) are all deliberately simple. They are all easily understood at first glance because there’s nothing to not understand. They solve a problem that is easily defined and, as such, are instantly graspable.

“Onion apps” are just as easily understood, but their feature sets go a little deeper. Look at Google search, for example. At first glance, it’s an uber-simple search engine; the UI reinforces that. Then you see that you can also search for products and even buy products. And then you find out that you can search local businesses. You can even get maps and directions of those businesses. There are tons of really cool features that you slowly come across. This is what makes it an onion app – it seems simple until you peel (get it?) away at it a bit.

Facebook is the same way. At first, it seems like Twitter without the word restriction (i.e., a way to say what you’re doing and find out what others are doing), and people get that. Once that makes sense, then they notice that they can post photos and photo albums, and they can follow famous people and businesses, and they can even play games. All of this comes after the initial “oh, so that’s what this is used for”, or, once they are ready to peel away at it a bit.

And this peeling is why onion apps don’t suffer from the “it does too much” syndrome. Facebook, for example, could easily be ridiculed by saying that it’s for communication but it can’t replace email since you can only communicate with friends. However, nobody says this because we all understand that communicating with friends is the whole point of Facebook. It’s not a general purpose communication tool. This understanding may be false, since it’s used for much, much more now, but because of that initial impression and how Facebook presents itself, that’s all we really expect of it, so we don’t complain when we don’t get more.

This is Wave’s failure. Instead of being simple and graspable or even giving the initial impression of that, Wave gave you everything up front. It was an onslaught of “WTF is all this and what do I use it for” upon first loading wave, and that is a question that can’t really easily be answered, because it is “useful” for so many things. For Wave to have succeeded, it would have needed an actual problem to solve first and foremost, and focused on that problem, adding the rest of the features as layers.

So the point here is that for any app to be successful, it has to be understandable and it must solve a real, definable problem. You would think this is old news, but Wave obviously couldn’t do this, and sadly it had to die. RIP.

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