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How not to replace email: lessons from Google Wave (thesharps.us)
336 points by eadmund on Feb 18, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 158 comments

Wave was cool technology with interesting ideas, but there is no substitute for getting the user interface right, and unfortunately they didn't. It's been a long time and there might be others I'm forgetting, but there were two important design errors:

1. Email lets you type an entire message before sending; IRC at least lets you type a whole paragraph, which is enough. Wave didn't let you type more than one character before sending.

2. The designers correctly realized chronological order isn't enough, you also want logical order, but unfortunately they provided the latter instead of the former, whereas you actually need both. (Gmail provides both: new messages and threads. Git provides both: view changes, and view current code. Google Docs provides both. Either view alone does not suffice.)

I would by all means encourage someone to take another shot at building something like Wave, with those problems fixed.

As the article quotes:"I was one of about four people who thought that Wave would have been a good project", and I really loved Google Wave (while at the same time I don't like many of Google's anti-privacy practices). The fact that 2-5-10 people can simultaneously work on the same piece of text, eliminating the risk of forking, enabling tracking/auditing for every key-press.. that was a dream come true. I am saddened by the fact that this went to sleep. I do understand that Google Docs is (somewhat) involving this, and that's something positive.

As far as "collaborative editing environment(s)" go, I would love to see more alternatives with such capabilities.

For anyone interested in working on such a project, I highly recommend checking out the Automerge library, posted on HN ~2 weeks ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16309533

I viewed design error #1 as the killer feature of wave.

What I found is that it turned IM-like communication into a high-bandwidth medium comparable to what you get in a phone conversation. It managed that while also retaining nearly all of the advantages of an IM client.

I think that you're right #1 is a 'killer feature' in that it killed Wave: think about such feature at work, would you really like to see your boss see when you made a big mistake without having the time to think twice? Even if you can disable this setting, good default matters!

> 2. The designers correctly realized chronological order isn't enough, you also want logical order,

Oh god, please don't, at least not for chat/irc/whatever-you-call-it. I've seen so many attempts to try to somehow add another layer of order on top of chronological order. All the threads and whatever features and it is always a "what the heck is that, where are my messages, why did they get rearranged" disaster.

> Oh god, please don't, at least not for chat/irc/whatever-you-call-it. I've seen so many attempts to try to somehow add another layer of order on top of chronological order.

Like threads in e-mail, Usenet, forums on WWW?

IMO those are perfect examples of a combined logic and chronology. I'll speak for myself, but I absolutely prefer threads in the mentioned examples. It makes the content better readable. For me, there's no question about that. Although that isn't any proof; it'd be best to have usability studies about it.

Threads is Gmail aren't perfect. Some threads aren't nice neat linear threads and I find I can lose track of branches. But, overall, that's been one of the big wins of switching to Gmail for professional stuff. Now some long but uninteresting thread in a mailing list or whatever is one line rather than overwhelming my inbox.

> Threads is Gmail aren't perfect.

If you're referring to conversation view, then they're not as good as traditional threads since they don't handle keeping track of conversation between multiple people that may branch off into different topics.

That sounds like attempts to supply logical order instead of chronological, which is indeed a disaster; it needs to be as well as. (i.e. at any given time you can ignore it and just look at things in chronological order.)

I don't think it's impossible. Slack's threads work pretty well for me in busy channels.

I've seen a lot of failures in this space as well, but I still think Flowdock was the only product so far that got the second layer right.

It never tried to hide messages from you, the threads worked more like filters. Instead of finding the discussion you wanted you filtered out messages that weren't related to that discussion.

Do you think HN solves point 2 correctly?

I'd say no. HN doesn't have "enough" chronological order. To find new comments when you're back from lunch, you need to scan the whole discussion from top to bottom.

Here's a demo video of how HN and Reddit could be modified to solve that, i.e. how chronological order could be added to HN:


This part: "1. Finding new comments". I've actually implemented this for real — click "Recent comments" in the upper right corner

If you have Reddit gold, Reddit will clearly mark new comments when you revisit a thread.

Some apps also do it, the app I use (Sync) will tell me the number of new comment and highlight them when I revisit.

I never cease to be amazed and dismayed at how much worse contemporary web based discussion technologies (HN, Slashdot, Reddit, Disqus) are than Usenet was back in the day.

That’s fascinating… because I remember Usenet as being a complete cesspool, useful if you wanted to get into arguments with the loudest people out there.

Not sure what “back in the day” is for you, but I remember e.g. comp.lang.lisp being terrible in the 90s. And we all made jokes about flamewars, because flamewars were reality.

Yes, there were lots of arguments and loud people (referring to the 1990s), but thanks to open protocols, there were newsreaders suitable for every kind of usage profile, and many of them had very effective killfiles.

Even the dumbest of them would remember what articles you read and let you pick up where you left when you came back the next day. That's a straightforward feature that is sorely lacking on most web based discussion sites (Twitter does it, but is lacking in threading).

A lot of those problems could be solved by using a kill filter for posts from certain individuals and ones that were crossposted to certain groups. You could also just selectively kill threads (or subthreads) for discussions that weren't of interest to you.

Even on the web there are/were much better fora from a UI perspective than the four you mention, for instance 'scoop'. But those have not been maintained and would likely die instantly on the hostile place that is the web today.

But functionality wise they were pretty good.

To some extent both HN and reddit solve it. But neither make it easy to check which messages are new messages on subsequent viewings (though reddit gold will highlight them).

A properly implemented mail and news reader will indicate new messages in a threaded view after retrieving them. For example, Thunderbird viewing a usenet group makes it very easy to see new messages in threads after clicking on the "Get Messages" button.

Here's another approach: https://www.talkyard.io/-32/how-hacker-news-can-be-improved-... — part 1: "Finding new comments".

To me the Thunderbird approach actually seems a bit annoying. What if I return after lunch, click "Get messages", and then Thunderbird highlights new comments in orange. But I don't read all of them, instead I go for another errand. Later, I return ... and click "Get messages" again. But now the orange marks from after-lunch will be lost, right? And only the very most recently loaded messages will get marked?

> What if I return after lunch, click "Get messages", and then Thunderbird highlights new comments in orange. But I don't read all of them, instead I go for another errand. Later, I return ... and click "Get messages" again. But now the orange marks from after-lunch will be lost, right?

As far as I know, the thread overview pane will still show the unread message in a bold font, but the indicator that you just retrieved the message would be lost for the messages that you retrieved right after lunch (though it would then show up for messages you retrieved after you returned from your errand).

In either case, it would still be obvious which messages you haven't read as of yet which is something that HN doesn't really show on subsequent viewings of a given comment thread.

Perhaps Thunderbird could be extended to show a different symbol associated with each message retrieval so that, in your example, you would have one symbol for messages retrieved after lunch and a second symbol for messages retrieved after you return from your errand.

Aha, I forgot that in Thunderbird and other email clients, one needs to click a message to see it in full and read it (right). So then Thunderbird knows exactly which messages one has read, and can highlight the unread ones in bold.

Whereas here at HN, it's a lot harder for the software to know which messages one has read (because here messages are shown without the user indicating what s/he is reading).

Yes perhaps different symbols — actually I'd be happy with just Thunderbird's bold font :- )

What's the proper way to only show 'new' comments on HN?

Text search for " minute"? Haven't done that in a long time because it is so cumbersome. But the friction it adds is part of what shapes the discussions here. Adding a feature like that (or making it more visible if it already exists) could have unpredictable side effects, with symptoms almost impossible to trace back to the causing change.

> Text search for "minute"

This is the sort of thing I love about the web, and composability in general I suppose.

The people who designed the HN UI didn't think or care about that feature at all, but just by virtue of the fact that the user has powerful general-purpose tools at his disposal, and the HN UI is just as valid as content as the actual content is, the user can piece it together for himself.

This would not be possible if HN were a traditionally-designed desktop application instead of a web page.

The web returns us lots of the composability that was lost when "progressing" from CLI applications to GUI applications.

@cygx, @usrusr, @jstanley:

Here's one way to show new comments at HN: https://www.talkyard.io/-32/how-hacker-news-can-be-improved-...

— part 1: "Finding new comments". Video, + live demo if you click "Recent comments" in the upper right corner.

Iow, everything is searchable if you put it into Word-like text container. Of course Word had issues like jumping tables and blocks floating at wrong positions between versions, but who doesn’t.

> Text search for " minute"?

That's not very intuitive. It's easier to see new replies to comments one posts by going to the comments view on one's own user profile page, but seeing new replies in general is definitely not (especially if you don't check for several hours).

I think that traditional mail and news clients with their threaded view go it right for that purpose decades ago.

dont know about proper, but https://github.com/raszpl/hackahackernews

I think it does something unusual on deeply nested comments. It simply discourages deeply nested comments because they are usually unuseful except for the two participants.

> I think it does something unusual on deeply nested comments.

IIRC, HN does roughly the same thing that reddit does for deeply nested comments (meaning that you have to click on a link to view more of the thread). The most deeply nested thread I was involved in [1] on HN didn't appear to be handled any differently than any other thread I've seen here.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13632352

It (temporarily?) hides the "reply" link after some depth, so you have to click the timestamp to go to the comment permalink instead and reply there.

Is that a function of nesting, I thought it was rapidity of responses -- to try to inhibit back-and-forth arguing.

I have seen this happen if I try to reply soon after a post appears, but I don't recall it happening in the nested thread that I linked to.

For example: your comment had no reply link, but the one above did.

idk but Slack surely does.

Regarding #1, wasn't there an option to not preview your message? I remember it being just under the input form.

I remember looking for such a thing and not finding it. Maybe it was added later? I tried an early version of Wave, briefly.

If it was indeed added later, this is an example of something Joel Spolsky cautioned against: don't do a huge marketing blitz for version 1.0 of your product. Aim for user count to increase in step with product maturity.

Though admittedly this might be hard to avoid with a product that has strong network effects.

Wave didn't have a UI, it had clients. Google's client might have been a problem, but that would be like me complaining about email because the client I'm using one accepts a single email address at a time.

If every email client currently in existence only accepted a single email address at a time it would be a perfectly valid complaint about email. It's like all those W3C standards that none of the browsers actually implement, "it's not a problem with <protocol> it's just a problem with every implementation in existence" is not a useful distinction to make.

> If every email client currently in existence only accepted a single email address at a time it would be a perfectly valid complaint about email.

Sounds like Nirvana to me. No more eternal “reply to all” chains that span months? I’m in.

I saw the live presentation of Google wave at Google IO in 2009. I was in awe of the technology & wanted my hands on it as soon as possible. The product vision was amazing and long term. But the product was just way ahead of its time. Apart from the performance issues and clunky UX, I feel the product overall was very cool. I still maintain that Google gave up too early on Wave.

Google Wave had quite an effect on how I react to 'cool, new tech things'. I was very excited about it and convinced friends to try it out, but then in practice it just didn't 'click'.

Ever since I've been paying a lot more attention to the somewhat indefinable 'feel' of a tool. Trello, for example, felt right despite its relative simplicity (or because of it?), so I felt like it had a bigger chance of working out.

If I had to define it, I guess it would be something in the direction of what someone in an early React presentation described as the 'pit of success'. Using the tool feels like it was optimized for how 'you' use it, and I suppose if everyone feels that way, it's got a chance of succeeding.

tl;dr: 'apart from the clunky UX' is probably a bad sign.

On the other hand for me, Trello is something I use now and then because some team I'm working with uses it for a workflow. But it's never really clicked for me and isn't something I use unless I have to.

Sure, but do you use something else? It's simply incredible how low-quality most "card apps" are (Jira leading the pack with awful UX/UI).

No. Any "to do"/workflow apps I use, I go into with the best of intentions and I get out of the habit after a while. For on deck articles and other content I need to or am thinking about creating, upcoming conferences I may submit to or attend, etc. I mostly just use a Google Sheet with tabs for the various categories. And I mostly just use paper lists and a whiteboard for tracking both someday/maybe projects as well as stuff to get done this week.

I mostly don't do software development except for the occasional learning project.

Incidentally, "pit of success" is usually the goal in the standardization discussions for new web APIs. The anti-goal is a "footgun," which makes it too easy to shoot yourself in the foot.

> I still maintain that Google gave up too early on Wave.

I was just listening to a talk by Eric Schmidt where he used Wave as an example of a mistake he had made -- for not closing it down soon enough despite it losing users right from the beginning.

Interesting, do you have a link?

I'm not really sure what Schmidt "does". Is he limited to running business processes and exploiting markets profitably or has he proven a talent fostering the invention of ground-breaking tech? If I want to successfully build the next Wave, I'm not sure if I want to be listening to him or not.

Here it is: https://youtu.be/gKNrOIR0euY?t=2209

Transcript: "I made many, many mistakes as the CEO and I'm glad that the good things we did overcame the mistakes. A typical example is... Did anyone ever use a product called "Wave"? Some of you may have. We launched it and from day one its usage went straight down. And the question is: If you're the CEO, how many months of going down before you cancel it? ... Look at the numbers, three months, six months, nine months? Eighteen months. Not good. There are other examples of that category, and again, just bad decisions."

I know it's easy for me to say in hindsight, but I think that as the CEO Eric Schmidt's big failure with Wave wasn't "I should have cancelled it sooner" but "I should have encouraged a better, more focused product".

I don't know.. I'm trying to think of a product that was fundamentally broken in v1 that was eventually "fixed" by exec encouragement/buyin/investment and ended up succeeding. Maybe Internet Explorer. Yea, I suppose Microsoft is the master of this "v1=shit, v2=shit, v3=barely usable, v4=world dominating" approach.

How about the iPhone? (No copy/paste, no apps, no 3G, etc)

Apple usually mail the core experience with v1, but all the ancillary roles have to wait till v3 or v4.

Thanks. Sounds like management by metrics instead of vision.

And if that's your metric, then why slow-roll the launch by making it invite only? If the answer is performance, like I suspect it may be, then why launch if you cannot achieve success by the sole metric you appear to be looking at?

I don't think so. If you'd asked Wave's designers before the launch, their vision surely would have included increasing usage. It turns out few people cared about Wave.

Schmidt's decision has been borne out by events. Did Wave take off when open sourced? No. Did anything Wave-like developed subsequently turn into a big market? Also no.

I agree to a point but I want to see numbers leading to reasoning. If you identify why the numbers are bad and it is not something you can or want to turn around then sure, kill it. Killing off projects based only numbers alone is tyranny of the bean-counters.

> Did Wave take off when open sourced?

Eh, how many "dump and run" open-source projects take off? Bringing an opensource community to life is its own brutally hard problem.

The numbers were bad, Duncan, because not many people wanted to use it. Your theory that they are "killing off projects based only numbers" is something you appear to have made up.

I think Google's real error was not killing it too soon, but allowing it to be developed in a bubble and then springing it on the world with a giant, "Ta da!" It let them ignore a lot of real-world problems and questions, investing heavily in untested design hypotheses. Once you get to the point of a huge global launch, you've baked in problems in a way that is very hard to fix.

Isn't Slack Wave-like?

Previously asked and answered. No, slack is IRC-like. The Wave approach also mixed in notions of emails, wikis, and group editing.

> Did anything Wave-like developed subsequently turn into a big market?



Slack is basically a spiffed-up IRC. Trello is a virtual index card board. Neither is, "designed to merge key features of communications media such as email, instant messaging, wikis, and social networking."

> has he proven a talent fostering the invention of ground-breaking tech?

Schmidt was CEO from 2001 to 2011. During that time period, Google basically invented all the infrastructure we take for granted in distributed systems today, popularized the concepts of JavaScript-heavy web applications and Software as a Service, created from scratch a new browser (Chrome) and a new operating system (Android) which promptly dominated the market, and became one of the top five largest companies in the world.

I think he deserves some credit, yeah.

Chrome wasn't created from scratch, it was WebKit-based (which Apple didn't start from scratch either, it was KHTML-based). This not to deprecate Google, but to give some credit to the open-source projects they based their work on.

Fair enough, "from scratch" was a stretch. (And Android was Linux-based, etc.)

It's not just "Android was Linux-based", it was bought by Google in its current form as well.

No... it was bought by Google in a very primitive form, years before even its initial release. Android at the time of acquisition would be mostly unrecognizable today.

I don't think it's fair to say: "They only bought it so it doesn't count." You could just as easily say: "They only hired Paul Buchheit, he was the one who came up with GMail, not Google." Real inventions aren't spontaneous point events, they take many years of development, and can die anywhere along the way if you don't continuously create the necessary environment to foster them.

He certainly has business achievements but I'm not sure how much these count as invention as I mean it. The type of invention I have in mind is where novelty is a significant obstacle i.e. it requires education and transformation in the expectations and behaviour of the audience not just solving technical problems. In this type of invention, you have to swim upstream against the numbers holding on to a vision to break through.

- Chrome - competitive play - iterative improvements over competitors

- Android - competitive play - purchased, playing catch-up to competitors

- Infrastructure - internal services

Basically, is he is more Xerox Copier division than Xerox Parc?

Obviously Eric wasn't creating the inventions himself, but I would argue that he fostered innovation very effectively in the way he ran the company. Eric hired amazing people and put them into an environment where bottom-up innovation could happen, and then he stood back and let it happen. It was chaotic, but a lot of great stuff came out of it.

OTOH, when Larry took over, things became much more top-down, with Larry trying to be Steve Jobs and tell the company what they should be building next -- most notably when it came to Google+.

I left before Sundar took over so I don't know how he runs things, but it seems like Google these days is just sort of chugging along, building solid products but not doing anything revolutionary.

You use the term innovation which I avoided because it typically only means "bring to market" instead of invention which I see as novel work to traverse a wilderness of unknowns. He views his mistake not as identifying a fault in the vision or the implementation but in not responding to numbers soon enough which I find telling. You can't lose sight of the shore to discover new worlds if you require positive numbers at every step.

The Larry approach sounds more vision-led and its interesting how it looks when it fails. Its difficult to see beyond the survivorship bias and only see it as egotistical and ignorant failure.

I think we disagree on the meaning of innovation. I don't like the term "invention" because it suggest a point event rather than a continuous process. I don't think "innovation" means "bring to market"; they are two separate phases in a process.

The real mistake with Wave was that a group of incredibly smart engineers were basically allowed to go into a bubble and build whatever they wanted for an extended period of time. Successful innovation needs to be anchored by a real problem to solve. E.g. the best programming frameworks always come from someone who is building a real app on top, not from someone who set out to build a programming framework. The feedback loop is necessary to keep developers focused on the actual needs of users, rather than on whatever problem they find most interesting to solve.

I think Eric is referencing the poor usage numbers as a proxy for the fact that the Wave team was not building something that users really wanted.

(FWIW my own startup, Sandstorm.io, had a pretty poor record on this point as well.)

Google wave pretty much provided infrastructure for Google docs and other realtime communication products.

Similarly, Google plus was not a total failure - Google Photos came out of it.

> Similarly, Google plus was not a total failure - Google Photos came out of it.

Making it even more ridiculous that they killed off Google Reader for it (or didn't bother to revive it afterwards)

EDIT: Also, they already had Picasa Web Albums since 2006. I don't know what exactly Google Photos has to offer over it in terms of functionality.

Especially with Flickr stagnating at the hands of Yahoo, Google more or less had the market for a high-quality photo sharing site to itself had it wanted it.

That said, surveying today's landscape, it would appear that there isn't actually a huge amount of demand for either full resolution user-curated sites focused on photography or RSS readers. The vast bulk of users are fine with throwing their baby and cat pictures up on more casual sites like Facebook and Instagram or getting their news from Facebook/Reddit/etc.

It’s interesting you are thinking of them as the high-quality niche, saying not a huge demand for full resolution.

Problem wasn’t full resolution, it was re-compressing your originals. Photographers that care about full res, care about original quality.

While there were (and still are) options like SmugMug for photogs, Flickr was the only prosumer one supporting unlimited original quality.

Also on the “stagnating” comment — at some point is it possible you’ve hit a reasonable photo site, and shouldn’t tinker much?

Turns out photographers who posted and curated 50,000 photos are not big fans of having the rug pulled out from under them by people in marketing trying to change the UI for their own engagement metrics.

>Also on the “stagnating” comment — at some point is it possible you’ve hit a reasonable photo site, and shouldn’t tinker much

I actually think that's somewhat fair. I could come up with some things that I wish were better with Flickr and there are probably lots of things I'm not thinking of. But I still use it and, in conjunction with Lightroom, I find it's a pretty good way to display a curated collection of edited photographs (as well as serving as a backup of last resort).

I did object to the big UI change a few years ago and still don't really love it. On the other hand, I don't actually use the web interface much. I upload from Lightroom and I mostly view from a tablet.

> I don't know what exactly Google Photos has to offer over it in terms of functionality.

The machine learning assisted search. For example, if I want to find photos of whiteboards that I took to record a meeting, I type in "whiteboard".

Also automatic curated photos, reminders and so on. A mobile app that is very simple and easy to use.

And automatic sharing suggestions based on the people that was at an event.

I thought writely gave them that?

Docs pretty much threw out all the Writely code and switched over to a new editor built from scratch (codename "Kix") in 2010. I'm not sure if Kix used code from Wave, though.

I'm pretty sure there is no lineage from Wave to Kix (which, yes, was the code name for the modern incarnation of Docs). Kix is more of a descendant of the architecture of Google Sheets.

Source: I am one of the original authors of Writely, did not work on Kix but I was still at Google when it was being written, had a minor role in reviewing the design.

Out of curiousity: with these full rewrites, do they at least learn from the mistakes of the previous code? I can imagine there is potentially great value in that.

Good question. I don't know how much of that was done in this case. I can say that at the outset of the Kix project, they did ask me for advice about pitfalls. (I was skeptical that it could be done at all using the browser technology of that time; they proved me wrong. One of my concerns was proper handling of complex international character sets, both for input and rendering.)

Kix is a drastically different architecture than Writely, so many lessons would not have been applicable. Writely was built on a contentEditable DIV, so the data model was literally whatever junky HTML the browser's contentEditable implementation would create, and synchronization was implemented by performing three-way diffs on the HTML code. It was very much a dancing bear, in the sense of "the amazing thing is not how well it dances, but that it dances at all". ...but I digress. My point is that the mechanisms and challenges of that approach are entirely different than the Kix approach. I think the important lessons would have been product-level rather than code-level.

I dunno, the description you just gave of a dancing bear gives me the impression that your advice must have contained quite a bit of insight about past mistakes to avoid.

If Trix is Sheets and Kix is Docs, what does the K stand for?

I have no idea. :)

Hmmm, best I can come up with is a joke about cereal.

What about the OT code and the comments?

Bear in mind that this was almost a decade ago, and I wasn't directly involved. With that caveat: the core mechanisms for client / server coordination in Kix were a direct descendant from Trix (short for "Matrix"), which was the original code name for Google Sheets. And Kix was developed by a team in New York, an offshoot of the Trix team which was also in New York. Writely (post-acquisition) was in Mountain View, and Wave was in Australia (I forget which city), and the picture that might give you of how closely the various teams communicated is probably accurate.

I don't know whether Trix originally used OT specifically, or the Kix team borrowed that idea from Wave. But the basic idea of clients performing small, tidy logical operations and then synchronizing them in realtime through a server was part of both Trix and Kix. Writely used a very different (and more primitive) approach.

I don't know anything about the origin of the comments feature, but my guess is that there was no connection to Wave, except (again) possibly a bit of inspiration. The Wave team was very separate, both geographically and organizationally, and the tech stack they built was very disconnected from anything that was going on with Trix, Kix, or Writely.

Wave was in Sydney, the only Google engineering office in Australia. I walked through their space before they had even announced the project internally. All that almost everyone in the company knew was that Lars and co. were busy on something big. The rest of the office was aware of its nature, but sworn to secrecy until the announcement. I remember going by a whiteboard, looking at this architecture diagram (wavelets?) and still having little clue on what it was all about, other than it having something to do with threads. :-)

I was asking because I have a vague recollection that Kix borrowed OT ideas or even code from Wave. But then I was even more removed from both teams than you. Or maybe it was just an aspirational thing from management to find a silver lining in the Wave shutdown.

You might be right about the OT idea, or even some code, having been borrowed from Wave. I wouldn't necessarily have known about it (or I might simply have forgotten). But I'm pretty certain that Kix as an overall project was much more closely connected to Trix than to Wave.

I agree. I liked it back in the day, and the fact that you could attach people to subtrees of a conversation was rather cool. IT also fixes infinitely-deep email chain problem very well.

It reminded me of usenet in that respect, easy to ignore subtrees you don't care about.

What surprised me was Wave is obviously best for business, where email chains CC'd to a load of people who don't care are the norm, yet they killed it only months after enabling it for Google Apps

A group of friends excitedly signed up for wave and never found out how it was better at anything than a Google doc and it's built in chat.

We spend a lot of time just figuring out what we wanted to communicate about inside wave and settled on planning a trip abroad, and eventually migrated to docs.

What seemed to sink Wave as that Google dropped their support for a federated internet.

Keep in mind that Wave backbone was XMPP, the same XMPP that powered Google Talk, and could in theory allow any number of Wave instances around the world to talk to each other.

I remember being very excited by Wave when it was released - and while I didn't use it heavily, and didn't use it with many concurrent users on a document, I never particularly suffered from the usability issues others have described.

For me, though, it failed for two reasons:

* Wave was a solution in search of a problem, a need. It was fantastic as a tech demo --back when it was released, it was magical-- but it never seemed to fill a niche? It wasn't fully-fledged-enough to be a word processor, it wasn't really for communication, etc. I liked the description of other posters using it for gradually developing ideas --almost like a virtual pinboard-- but my guess is that very few teams work like this, and especially few outside of the bleeding edge tech space.

* Change is hard without a compelling reason. For example, I work in a (non-IT) organisation which offers people a choice of (legacy) MS Office + Sharepoint, vs. (the upstart) Google Docs. To me, Google Docs is far better for all a fraction of our work - it's faster, smoother, easier to share, and has (thanks to Wave!) collaborative editing... yet the proportion of users with the mindset to adopt it voluntarily I'd put at <5%, and probably even lower. And Wave offered a far less rounded, less compelling, less approachable product than Docs.

In general, I agree with you. There are a bunch of collaboration tools out there I just don't use much for some combination of others not using it and my just not finding it worth the mental load to fit into my workflow.

Google Docs, on the other hand, pretty much everyone I work with has adopted it even though it was more or less voluntary. The application itself works well but the ability to have everyone comment and make suggestions in a single doc is a huge win. Admittedly, we didn't and don't use Sharepoint so the alternative was pretty much to mail documents around.

This definitely matches my understanding. It seemed like a glorified demo, something developed in a bubble. Which is fine if you want to make a tech demo. But it's a terrible way to make a product that people actually adopt.

I have to suspect that nobody on the team had ever read Crossing the Chasm; if they did, they would have know that technophiles are a very small percentage of the market. If we want broad adoption, we a) have to solve an important problem for early adopters, and then b) broaden features and approachability enough that the majority of users will switch.

As the article points out, this is worse for network-effect products. Maybe interoperability would have helped. (And maybe not; Slack didn't bother with much of that.) But I don't think it was the primary mistake they made.

We use google docs in school, the students do multi-player documents all the time. Being in the same room removes almost all of the friction. Want a team member to research part of the topic and while you write the intro? Super easy.

I'm not sure how to get that level of communication when the team is spread across multiple locations... webcams maybe

"multi-player documents"

I love this phrase! We did something similar way back in the day, only using Emacs and "M-x make-frame-on-display" instead. Just like in your case, it worked fine as long as everyone was in the same room. The one tricky part of "multi-player Emacs" was that only one person at a time could use the minibuffer.

I mainly used it for brainstorming projects with remote friends. It was great for that! But I never figured out any other practical use. And Google docs or Microsoft onenote solve this almost as well nowadays, or at least well enough that I probably wouldn’t switch to Google wave if it just came out now

Docs also doesn't have copy and paste unless you're using Chrome, which is a real usability killer.

I think the most important part is this:

> * Assuming you could stand Wave’s interface, it’d still be useless unless the people you wanted to communicate and collaborate with were also using it. Wave was intended to completely replace existing systems like email and chat, so it had no provisions for interoperating with those systems. To succeed, Wave required a revolution, a critical mass of people switching to the new way and dragging the rest of the world with them—and those haven’t worked out very often.

> * Making the revolution even more unlikely, initially Google offered Wave accounts by invitation only, so the people you wanted to talk with probably couldn’t even get an account.

I was excited about Google Wave at the time but first had to wait what felt like ages for an invite and then barely anyone I knew was on it and I quickly ran out of invites myself (because not everyone you send an invite will be as excited to use it as you are).

To replace e-mail it would have had to at least provide some kind of gateway between wave and e-mail to ease the transition -- or it would have had to integrate more closely with other tools and applications to "trick" people into adopting it (like how Google Talk integrated with GMail).

The "openness" was neat but didn't help them gain any traction because there was no incentive to actually build and run your own server because there were no users.

Not a shill: I think Notion [1] gets close to being a spiritual successor to Wave (much more so than Slack). It's essentially a multimedia collaboration tool and it's really nice. It's not quite a wiki, and distinctly more freeform than a document editor, but still way more powerful than just a plaintext editor or a chat app.

My social group has begun to use it it for a pretty wide variety of things, ranging from rough notes to blog posts to draft documents.

[1] https://www.notion.so

How is the data export? I like the idea, but the fact that it seems to only export data into Markdown or HTML rather than something more structured, like XML or JSON, makes me nervous.

The spirit of failure of Google Wave was very similar to Google Glass failure. They were so badly presented, in so much wrong ways. The idea behind Wave is extremely great but why, oh god, WHY it was presented as a consumer (and not business/corp) product?!

This. Everytime I'm thrashig out a design with other developers on Skype I wish we were using something mixing wiki and chat.

Google Docs has chat on the side and version history, along with live editing. What is it missing that you'd want?

It does lack connections between documents like a wiki. While you can do hyperlinks, it does not feel connected.

Also, can you structure documents into find hierarchy or tagging system?

Finally, no self hosting.

Better browsing across Google Docs documents would make it the killer software.

- It probably requires a left sidebar with a tree of the project’s documents,

- And perhaps a notion of document hierarchy, child pages or something to better browse. Aside from those, which aren’t technology challenging, it would make my startup switch to GApps.

> While you can do hyperlinks, it does not feel connected.

Not sure what "feel connected" means. In both systems, you click a link and it takes you to the document in question. The only difference is that wiki links are shorter...

> Also, can you structure documents into find hierarchy or tagging system?

The hierarchy is just the file system, which only allows files to be in a single directory at a time.

> Finally, no self hosting.

OwnCloud with certain extensions probably does everything you want, e.g. https://owncloud.com/collabora/collaborative-editing/

Quip is a pretty interesting take on this.

>They released sample implementations under open source licenses, encouraged others to run their own Wave servers independent of Google infrastructure, and defined a federation protocol (on top of Jabber/XMPP) so that people on different servers could still talk with each other.

With the caveat that this was of course several years ago, I seem to recall the reference implementation missing several major features. Private replies were notably absent.

It was all properly specced out, but the only available server software was incomplete - at least, it was when I tried running it.

I've said it in the past, and I'll say it again, Google Wave was a great idea that was pitched by Google in a bad way. All it's promise was torpedoed because of the way Google marketed it. There is nothing out there that solves the problems Wave solved, and because of that, communication and collaboration is still stuck in the Stone Age of the internet. Slack and Google Docs is the best we have, and they don't do anything that couldn't be done decades ago.

Bad marketing seems plausible, because I never had any idea what problems it was meant to solve; it always seemed like someone had dreamed up the fancy architecture first and tried to justify it with use cases later.

I'm surprised nobody has brought up the scrollbars yet. The original post mentions the bespoke UI, but only faults it for using MDI.

The non-native scrollbars were smart and nifty, but, at the end of the day, they were jarring to use. I don't remember many single UI features that ever made me alternate so frequently between "neat!" and "WTH?!?". And I've seen lots of interfaces on many platforms.


I thought I'd heard that the scrollbars were custom because it did some fancy infinite-scrolling thing that wasn't really compatible with normal scrollbars.

If it's true they were custom to make them work well "on mobile devices or netbooks with a limited mousing area", that's even worse. They know I'm on a desktop computer with a big screen, and they're delivering a netbook-optimized user experience.

The only thing that can replace e-mail is, e-mail. We need a means for communications that are not instant, and allow for long-form, off-line, complex interactions, based on decentralised infrastructure. That'll continue to exist in some form along with all the other means we have, and that's a nice thing.

Pretty sure I was one of the few people that used Wave on an actual collaborative project of dozens of people. It was great, way ahead of its time. I thought it was more useful than Slack is right now. The only real complaint I had with it was it's slightly slow user interface. With today's tech it would own.

On the flipside, there's also the point that while it's cool that Operational Transform allows for a decentralized service without a central server, it also makes the requirements to use and extend the algorithm (e.g. with new editing commands for new types of media) needlessly complex if you're going to be running it with a central server anyway. I can see why it might not be seen as a solid business strategy at Google to launch a service with an increased development and maintenance burden just so others can EEE it. This also reminds me of the present day where blockchains are popping up in tons of places where a central server would solve the task just fine.

Edit: Could any of the people downvoting me please state their position? I didn't think my comment was disrespectful or off topic, so I'm wondering what their problem with it is?

Actually, I still like the idea of Wave, but to be honest, I didn't like the idea of using a google server and as far as I remember, the self hosted servers were available when Wave was abandoned by Google already and they were in a miserable condition (buggy GUI, limited features).

So apart from these obvious problems I think their biggest mistake was the try to replace email instead of evolving email to wave.

Careful what you wish for, you may get it...

Mail AMP is a Google controlled superset of email. It is a given by many that chat is the ultimate social glue, and G already has their own chat protocol. In the interest of keeping people engaged, and keeping them walled in, I kind figured the long play of Google mail is to slowly morph all email into (a partially email compatible) Wave.

I think the killer idea with Google Wave was real-time collaboration on anything. It was just way too broad. We used it for project planning like many others here. Now I don't think there is anything a shared Google Doc or Google Sheet doesn't solve more intuitively, with more specialised tools for the task.

I love the idea described in the article of real-time collaborated _things_, as opposed to a timeline of ideas from a team. Specially for things like Github Issues or other bug management. The goal would be a shared living document, not a list of discussions. Really cool!

> Would somebody please try again but with less hubris this time?

A lot of Matrix.org is inspired by what Wave could have been - although we are running late with threading (but some work is happening currently there). From our perspective, one of the biggest gaps was the lack of bridging in Wave to other existing comms interfaces (eg email) - as well as the quirky UX.

Not sure if anything really can replace email.

After all it is a store-and-forward transmission system with arbitrary length text and inline attachment of binary data.

all this makes individual emails self contained.

Various proposed replacements are more focused on the "conversation" it seems.

and yet here we are, not discussing this by e-mail.

>Assuming you could stand Wave’s interface, it’d still be useless unless the people you wanted to communicate and collaborate with were also using it. Wave was intended to completely replace existing systems like email and chat, so it had no provisions for interoperating with those systems. To succeed, Wave required a revolution, a critical mass of people switching to the new way and dragging the rest of the world with them—and those haven’t worked out very often.

Back in the day, when I realized there was no backward-interop with email, I was afraid it wasn't going to go very far... network effect is hard to tame.

I still can't believe they tried to build hype around a tool that was useless without a network effect, and then rationed off invitations to actually use it. The PM couldn't have possibly been surprised when it didn't catch on.

I think they saw it as an effective method for building hype. I mean, gmail used to work on invites too.

Yeah, but Gmail could trade messages with all the email accounts everyone already had; there was no bootstrapping a social platform problem.

Brilliant article. Loved the idea that new technologies must provide bridges for older technology that people may need to use.

I am one of the four people who really liked Google Wave. I wrote a plug-in for it, and when Wave was shut down I stood up an instance of Apache Wave for friends and family. Basically no one wanted to use it except to play with it for a few minutes.

I want to check out the author’s C to Rust translator that he mentioned at the end of the article.

When Wave came out I worked at a small software company that was pretty distributed all over the country. Wave came as close as anything ever has for being the perfect collaboration tool for us. The key was taking the set of tools that Wave provided and putting them together to support your desired outcome.

Here's something I wrote about it back then. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7533023

Sadly, since Google killed it, I've never been able to get other teams to pick up the open sourced versions and now everybody just wants to use <insert latest startup collab tool>.

It definitely had a tremendous number of problems in execution, but I never really got why Google killed it so fast. It seems that a reboot and rethink of some core metaphors would have tightened it up into the new paradigm it needed to become.

The initial implementation was a JavaScript-heavy web application in an era when people weren’t used to that. Browsers weren’t optimized to run so much code and so the user experience was terrible

There seems to be some historical revisionism here. Perhaps you could have said that about Gmail but no, when Wave came out people were very much used to crappy web apps. Wave suffered because it tried to make browsers do too much but that's been a common pathology for the entire history of the web, it was nothing to do with users not being "used to it".

If they'd written Wave as a desktop app it would have had more of a chance. I remember using it and the performance was awful, but not for any fundamental reason. Browsers just suck as app platforms.

I wrote a complete case study on Google Wave here: https://www.amazon.com/Why-We-Fail-Learning-Experience/dp/19...

Google Ware failed as a product but its underlying technology was successfully absorbed into Google Docs, Slides, Spreadsheets etc.

I never really understood all the buzz about it. I used it few times with friends to plan holidays, it was surely useful, but it looked like a very tiny product, not something important and huge. Something that bored developer could build on holidays. I guess, I didn't discover something important.

Glittering, but definitely not gold. We used it for 15 minutes, ended up discussed how bad it was then rolled our eye in fake surprise when it was quickly dropped. Subsewuent discussions were about how it embodied the nee software generations. “Let’s do it because we can do it!”

Google Wave? No, Google Edsel, Mk1.

We once collaborated on a design document in Wave, before discovering that printing wasn't really supported by the app. I was very impressed and excited by Wave, but we all just needed better Google Docs.

IMHO wave's biggest problem was the close beta hype.

90 minute help video, that was enough to put me off.

I think these lessons are so profound that they actually extend beyond technology to most business or social concepts.

Well I think they missed the mark Wave could have being MS Teams, hipchat, slack alternative with a bit of tweaking :)

Replacing other forms of communication is always a non-starter; every org builds up data legacy in the various tools they've tried out over the years.

(Shameless plug: that's why I built CTX - https://getctx.io - a SaaS cloud search tool that indexes your data in things like email, Slack, Trello, GitHub, JIRA and Google Drive)

Thanks for this article.

Make me wonder... What happen to projects that apache incubator retire like this one?

I liked Google Wave.


I wonder if heavy use of XML stunted it.

I wonder why people but so much effort trying to replace things that work perfectly and no one wants replaced. Email, door locks, etc. work well as it, it's a non-problem.

How about banks? I live in Poland and used to exchange Euros into Zloty at 3.97 with a 5% commission through my bank. Now I use Transferwise, and they give me a rate of 4.17 with a neglegible fee (a few cents). Now, that's an innovation that I welcome!

Old candy bar phones worked perfectly. Why every invent full screen glass phones.

I don't have a problem trying to reinvent email. I do have an issue if they use market power to damage an existing technology that works well and openly across platforms.

They didn't. You couldn't change the UI.

This makes no sense for me.

Email has plenty of issues too, you can't just take any new features the smartphones have and call it a default of the old phones.

Email is "perfect" as long as nothing better replaces it, then it will no longer be perfect?

A few issues of email I can think of : no guarantee your email will arrive, and no real acknowledgement it did. Also, Mailing lists are clunky for users (I still receive regularly emails with 500 recipients, where a mailing list would be far more appropriate). I also think of attachments, which are very limited in size with a lot of providers.

So email is far from perfect, it's just that nothing better has arrived yet.

Candy bar phones worked as phones

People decided that they liked portable computers far more after a brave company introduced a radical presentation of one.

> I wonder why people but so much effort trying to replace things that work perfectly

Because nothing works perfectly.

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