Wednesday, March 23, 2011

David Pogue on Consumer Technology

A great thing about academics at CBS is its interesting courses offered by practitioners/adjunct professors.

This semester I'm taking a course by David Pogue, the famous technology columnist from NYTimes. The course focuses on consumer technology and why products become a hit or a flop. If the first lecture is any sign of what's in store, this is going to be a riot! Our first assignment was to write our own take on a consumer technology product that flopped. Here is what I wrote.

                             Google Wave -A Tsunami that never came

When I first heard about the Wave I was hooked on. Who wouldn’t when Google introduces it by saying something like, “how would email look like if we invented it today?” Wave was supposed to take over the world like a tsunami; no one at Google anticipated that it would be on life support within a year of releasing to the entire population. Reflecting back, one can identify many reasons why this failure materialized.             

What is a Wave? makes their product managers write a press release even before first line of code is written. The idea is that if you can’t explain in simple terms what the product is and what you’re trying to solve, then something is wrong. When we look at Wave, this is the description we see - A wave is equal parts conversation and document. A wave is shared. A wave is live. It doesn’t take too much effort to figure out this is not the best written product description for a general population.  A product is not a laundry list of features. When a software product is introduced and especially when it’s something as forward looking as Wave, more thought should have given in coming up with a simpler one or two liner describing the product focusing on what it’s trying to solve or what it is offering new.                                
Who uses Wave?
Wave was first previewed for developers early May 2009 and 100,000 invitations were sent out five months later. The product was opened to general public about one year later. For a product that was supposedly targeting communication and collaboration, this was a doomed release strategy. The hype in the technology community around Wave was huge around the time it was introduced. Everyone wanted to desperately get access. In hindsight, this moment should have been capitalized by Google. Instead only 100,000 invitations were sent out and that focused mainly on the developers. A better strategy would have been to identify specific communities of users/networks so that if I were given access, chances are at least some of the people whom I need to communicate/collaborate with a lot also have access. This didn’t happen till about a year later when everyone could sign up. In that one year period, the limited number of people who got access didn’t have a real use case to use the product. If only, those who got access could also import all their top Gmail contacts into Wave automatically, this was going to be a non-starter.  And that’s exactly what happened and by the time general population received access, this mistake continued. None of their current contacts in Gmail were added automatically; instead everyone had to sign up individually

How to use Wave?  
 “We built this and then put it out there to see what users would do with it”, remarked Google. This was a risky strategy and unfortunately didn’t work out for them. Regular users required at least one compelling use case and the community whom astonished at the product for its technical finesse, were not a critical mass for the product to succeed. These regular users of Gmail and other Google products were taken aback by the complexity of the product. The Wave managed to wash them away into the middle of an ocean and they had no compass either. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the case of Apple Ipad in this scenario. There was no compelling use case for this product on introduction either but the masses embraced it and created the use cases. The difference in outcome can be directly attributed to the simplicity of the Ipad in its user interface which was essentially lacking in Wave. In this aspect, ironically the wave indeed became an unmanageable tsunami within a few minutes of collaboration with multiple users and required its own time machine (Wave replay feature) to understand how it all happened in the first place.   

Overall, though Wave is a technology marvel and definitely worth a lot of potential, in its current form failed miserably as a product. I’d argue that the complexity in its design which essentially contributed to the convoluted marketing message and the wrong release strategy were the main causes for its failure. Google has done the right thing by making many of Wave’s great innovations open source and I expect this Wave will continue to evolve and someday a new Wave will be born and ready for the masses!


  1. I am sure if gmail didnt do well, your post would apply to it too. (They had the same roll out strategy, similar PR and similar descriptions). Wave not being successful is unfortunate, I believe if google wanted to promote it after it launched, they could have, instead for whatever reason, they went into sustained engineering mode. Things like wave imo take a while to draw a user base. If it stuck around, I think the users would follow/join.

  2. @Dolly: Gmail might have had similar roll out strategy, however the key difference is that you don't need all your friends to have a gmail account to communicate with them.
    I agree with you regarding it might take a while for this to catch on. I think it appeals to a niche crowd even now but for regular user base it's UI/wave is complicated.