Google Wave Is Gone, But Workgroup Challenges Remain


by Don Willmott

The best thing to happen to IT last week was the sudden and unexpected death of Google Wave. It’s not that I derive any particular joy from seeing a potentially groundbreaking paradigm flame out even before it gets going. Rather, I’m simply relieved that for IT, Google Wave now falls into that pleasurable category of “one less thing to worry about.” At least for the time being.

What was Google Wave? That was part of its problem. We weren’t sure. Google’s one liner was “a new Web application for real-time communication and collaboration,” but that hardly captured all of Google Wave’s bells and whistles and its overarching ambition. Sometimes referred to as incomprehensible, the app was described by one pundit this way: “It was a mishmash of too many separate elements crammed into one bulging interface. Was Wave e-mail? Not quite. Was it an annotation system used to mark up documents? Yes, but in an odd way. Was it a wiki or a simultaneous editor? Yes and no.”

To IT, Google Wave was a potential game changer that with widespread adoption could have tangled up corporate technology departments for years. Web-based, real-time, and collaborative, Google Wave was designed to be a cloud-based shared work environment where documents, projects, and conversations would live and be acted upon by several people simultaneously. Like I say, ambitious, but also plagued with all sorts of potential access, security, and versioning problems that would have baffled even the smartest workplace collaboration guru. And how could all this have coexisted with workgroup software such as Microsoft’s SharePoint that’s currently deployed all over the place?

Of course, any new networked app can only be successful if there’s already a network to share it. It’s that old chicken and egg problem. “Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked,” said Google. Right. No one wanted to be first, and therefore the power of Google Wave couldn’t be adequately demonstrated. “We celebrate our failures. This is a company where it is absolutely OK to try something that is very hard, have it not be successful, take the learning and apply it to something new,” said Google CEO Eric Schmidt. That’s a pretty strong indication that bits and pieces of it will find their way into other cloud-based Google tools in the future.

So for now, IT has dodged a bullet, but the question of how coworkers can collaborate successfully online in real time from remote locations remains one of the toughest to answer clearly. Out-of-the box workgroup solutions have found success, but administrators bristle at their lack of flexibility, inability to be customized to the needs of a particular organization, and cost, especially if the business tends to grow or shrink seasonally or along with economic trends.

We’ve all made that annoying interoffice phone call: “Could you close the file so I can work on it? When I’m done, I’ll save it with a new version number and call you back so you can see what I’ve done.” That’s no way to run a 21st-century business, but simply floating your work in the cloud where anyone can change, share, or save it is the kind of thing that can stress out the big bosses and IT. Control of documents, of archived conversations, of workflow is vital, and so far it’s been hard for IT to find that one solution that combines cloud-based flexibility with the control that it demands.

As more of us become even more mobile and broadband speeds increase, real-time Web-based collaboration in some form will become inevitable, and yes, IT will have to accept the challenge. But for now, a bit of a reprieve. The fear you felt when you first heard about Google Wave and said “What the heck?” is assuaged. You can forget about it for now.