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Google Wave: the long KISS goodnight

Last year, when I read that Google Wave was going to change my business, career and life, I must admit I was moderately excited. I totally didn’t get the ins-and-outs of it, but that’s very often the way. In fact I fully expected it to have very little impact on my life at first–systems that have something to do with users interacting often need to cross a certain adoption threshold before they have any real use or impact. For example, the appeal of Facebook only increases as its population rises, as you’re increasingly likely to find other users with whom you’d want to interact. Of course, therein lies a spectacular Catch-22. All such things must start small, but, if they’re no good until they’re big, how do you persuade people to join in?

In the case of Wave, Google had one considerable advantage. After all, they are Google, and Google can rarely do things quietly. So when one of the web’s biggest and best-trusted brands brings its latest collaborative weaponry to market, it’d be reasonable to assume it’s going to fly. Maybe not on day one, or even day five, but within a few weeks the early adopters (myself included) will be all over it, and within a few months it’ll be embedded into the public consciousness. And yet… as the crowds descend upon it, what are they to do with it? Maybe time would tell.

I’d check in from time to time, but couldn’t help noticing that there was a distinct lack of activity. It wasn’t so much that people weren’t contacting me via Wave, but that they didn’t have cause to do so, nor I them. In truth, I simply don’t contact that many people on a regular basis. I collaborate with fewer still. And perhaps being an early adopter has meant I’ve already surrounded myself with the tools to contact/collaborate with those I do. So maybe it was just a solution to a problem I don’t have. Or maybe, just maybe, it did something I hadn’t yet figured out, that was so blindingly awesome I’d be left wondering how I’d lasted so long without it. And yet…

Cut to today. While it makes bucket-loads of sense for me to own and drive a hydrogen-powered car, I don’t. I’m still bumbling about in one of those retro petrol-powered things. Remember them? I know! So what would make me persist with a legacy technology, when something far better and, frankly, more noble, exists? I think you see where I’m going. In essence, there’s a limit to how fast a system can evolve, and that limit is governed by the users. Not the rate at which the users adopt, but the rate at which they get it. That said, when they do, they will do so at an increasing rate, just as humans have done with so many things before.

So what can we learn from Google Wave? Well, no doubt there’ll be many who’ll dance upon its grave, but this, in my view, is an infantile stance. True, it does serve to show that ventures can flop even with the mightiest backing. And it probably offers further proof to a whole bunch of fairly interesting mathematics regarding the explosive nature (or otherwise) of user adoption. But I’d suggest that the most significant lesson is a reminder of an old mantra: keep it simple, stupid. Users are people that use a system; before which they’re just people, and people can be lazy and slow in their uptake of others’ ideas. I suspect that Google Wave could have evolved from a much simpler idea to where it is now much more slowly, and may have taken many more people along with it as it went. Perhaps the secret of persuading people to accept complexity starts with simplicity.

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