Blog post

Sorry Google, No Participation Awards In The Grown Up World

By Brian Prentice | August 05, 2010 | 10 Comments

Has anyone else noticed these days that you can’t have a competition for children and only reward the top achievers?. Apparently, handing out ribbons for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place can negatively effect the self-esteem of all the other kiddies. So everyone gets a special award for participation – even if they failed miserably or couldn’t finish.

Maybe the average age of Google employees is proof that they grew up with this type of reward system because it sure seems they want a special participation award for their efforts with Google Wave. Just consider their announcement of the product’s demise. They talk about their gee-whiz features like playback. They remind us how “jazzed” they were internally and how they “enabled” third party developers.

Too bad that “Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked” (whatever that was). That doesn’t matter. At least they tried.

No apologies for wasting people’s time. No effort to make alternative arrangements for those invested in the product. It’s “look at me, look at me – I’ve just crossed the starting line.”

Not that there aren’t those out there ready to give Google a big E for effort. Karim R. Lakhani at Harvard Business School “applaud(s) the company’s decision to pull the plug after it was clear the market wasn’t interested in Wave.”

Well sorry, I don’t buy it.

Google Wave was a launch of phenomenal proportions and that means that its a failure of phenomenal proportions. That, however, was not a technical failure. The code is still out there and Google certainly got a lot of insight that they’ll be able to apply to other products. No, this was a behavioural failure of the highest order. And the crux of the problem is not that they decide to pull Google Wave – it’s that they launched it in the first place.

Let’s face it. Google Wave was the IT industry’s noisiest beta testing program. But as Guy Kawasaki points out, it doesn’t matter when you go into beta testing – what matters is when you come out of beta testing. And there was a mountain of evidence to prove to Google that Wave would never come out of testing. Certainly there were a lot of commentators questioning whether the capabilities of Google Wave were comprehensible to average users and whether actual usage would look anything like the slick demos. And there were others, myself included, that pointed to evidence showing that the simple emergence of a new and “improved” digital collaboration tool doesn’t change collective behavior in it’s own right. Even Lars Rasmussen, the lead developer of Google Wave admitted that email, the technology he had such a problem with, emerged over the course of 40 years.

And yet the product was released to the masses. And not in a small way. As the interest in Wave exploded and user accounts expanded one has to wonder whether Google stopped to think what might happen to all those people if the product didn’t pan out. At a minimum there should have been some appreciation for the time and energy that people were investing in Wave and, therefore, investing in Google. And with that, one would think would come a sense of reciprocal responsibility. Especially since a cloud-based offering like Wave which is brought to an end-of-life must inevitably be turned off leaving those who actually built workable solutions in a lurch.

The only way I can reconcile their behaviour is to conclude that Google’s corporate culture puts a higher premium on the needs of their engineers than their responsibility to users. Launching Google Wave seems now to have been an exercise in providing the Wave development team with both public accolades and an army of unpaid testers that would help them in their future endeavours.

If, on the other hand, Google was primarily focused on their responsibility to users than there would have been significantly more design work, user analysis and testing upfront. That would have taken time. It would have been costly. It probably would have presented the development team with significant new challenges that they weren’t expecting. It may have delayed the product for months, maybe years. I could have killed the project before it saw the light of day. It would also have been the right thing to do. But apparently there seems to be a view at Google that users are part of their fail often-fail fast model of innovation.

If that’s your cup of tea – helping Google figure out what works and what doesn’t – then this obviously doesn’t rank as a matter of great concern. But if you’re someone who believes that the effort a technology company puts into preparing a product for market and it’s willingness to stick with it once released is indicative of its commitment to its customers than the demise of Google Wave should give you pause to think.

Is Google the type of company you want to rely on?

So tough luck Google. No participation award for you. Instead you should go straight to your room and think about what you did. And you can come out when you’re prepared to say sorry and can show you learnt from your mistakes.

And it better be sincere.

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  • Martin says:

    I agree totally. The same applies to Microsoft Kin. I read a lot in the press about how it was so totally amazing that they were willing to drop the Kin and it was very brave, whereas the sales were so appalling that they had no choice.

    Also the crazy “we participated and should be rewarded” culture that is growing by the day (everywhere) is something I find offensive.

    A friend that tried out Wave said it best:
    “Nah, tried it and as it was invite only, there was a dirth (sic) of people you could connect to.”
    “Seemed like a good idea but it fixed a problem that didn’t exist so I can see why it failed.”

  • Damien says:

    While I do agree wholeheartedly with the view that there should be no “awards for participation” and that Wave was indeed an example of the emperor’s new clothes in our times, I don’t necessarily agree with the view that Google failed their users. They tried something, it didn’t pay off.

    If the company was to encounter tougher times or there was a more prudent approach to certain investments, the fanfare that surrounded the launch of Google Wave I believe wouldn’t have happened and indeed the project itself may not have even released unto the masses.

    One of the most positive things I see about Google at the moment is the inventive spirit and a sense within the company that there are “inventions” or possibilities that have not already been considered. They seem to want to dig those nuggets out and help to shape the world in some small way. The Google that started as an internet search company has come a long way to what it is today. There were many smaller “inventions”, initiatives and disruptive technologies along that way and some of them now are second nature to us all, even though they may have seemed irrelevant or a hindrance at the time.

    An explorer needs to pave a way forward, if this exploration leads down dead-end routes then it may be an inconvenience for some of those who get engaged in these expeditions. The benefit overall when they manage to find a new path forward is of greater benefit overall than the few that lose their way. Nobody was forced to join GW, although many felt compelled to, so I don’t believe they can feel sour at the experience.

    More fool those who kept at it long after it was clear that while there were some interesting and useful concepts, it was no more than the naked emperor standing before his people. They only have themselves to blame.

    The only people Google might apologize is to their shareholders. However,in the interest of promoting the company as inventive, disruptive, innovative and whatever else it is they value as a corporate culture, I don’t envisage an apology of that nature.

  • Tarus Balog says:

    A couple of comments:

    First, on the idea of “participation awards”, the concept extends through all levels of academia now. I was halfway through a Masters degree when I got fed up with everything, and I mean everything, being a “team” project. People are not being taught today to do things on their own, and just showing up seems to be enough for credit.

    Second, I think your criticism of Google for even attempting Wave is a little harsh. I love being exposed to new ideas, even flawed ones. As someone who works in the tech industry, even I found it a little hard to understand as a product, but that could have been more a failure on my part that a failure with the product. Heck, Apple had a monumental failure with the Newton and a monumental hit with the iPad while the concept behind both products was essentially the same – with drastically different execution.

    I think it is fine that Google put Wave out there and it is also fine that the market rejected it.

    You do make a valid point about Wave “must inevitably be turned off” but this is something enterprises face every day with closed software solutions. Software companies fail frequently, and unless the users can have access to the source code, they are screwed.

    We have to make similar decisions in my own project. We use Mediawiki as a collaboration tool, although one of our group is a huge fan of Confluence. Confluence, while free to open source projects, is not “free as in freedom” software and I don’t want to get tied to it, even if it is better. The terms could change in the future and I would have no control over it. Recently, Rackspace and NASA introduced OpenStack, a platform for creating private clouds, that is developed as a pure open source project in reaction to closed source projects such as Eucalyptus being too restrictive. Closed software, whether free as in beer or not, must always be examined in the light of what happens if development stops or goes away.

    Anyway, sorry to prattle on, but Google is one of the few companies that has the ability to bring about great change. Wave wasn’t it, but maybe the next thing they do will be (Android, for example, is the fastest growing mobile O/S out there). Yeah, they should be chastised for not recognizing that Wave was a failure, but they shouldn’t be penalized for trying.

  • > developed as a pure open source project in reaction to
    > closed source projects such as Eucalyptus being too restrictive.

    Eucalyptus *is* open source: . Maybe you were referring to the Enterprise Edition: .

    As for the article, I don’t agree. Google’s three years work gave us a brilliant concept, a published architecture, and lots of source code, that projects like PyGoWave will keep working with. Unfortunately they weren’t willing to devote more resources to make it mature, but maybe others will.

    As for the whole meritocracy screed, it’s not relevant to the topic.

  • Martin – thanks for you thoughts. You’ve highlighted the key problem with Wave. It’s useless unless enough other people want to use it also. I’m still amazed that the Google Wave team was arrogant enough to think that people wanted to collaborate in the way that they deemed best. This is a big lesson to all others thinking about building social software.

  • Hi Damien – thanks for you excellent thoughts. I agree with regarding the inventive spirit of Google although I don’t see it as being any more or less inventive than the spirit across the industry as a whole. Nor am I suggesting that the only time a product should ever be externalized is when its a guaranteed hit. But I believe that Wave was pushing the boundaries to such an extent that much more user analysis and testing was necessary. Why that didn’t occur is what I find worthy of examination. As I said, I think Google sees users as being part of their fail often, fail fast culture. Fine – so be it. But I think it’s perfectly far to ask what the ramifications of that mentality are when an enterprise considers their long-term relationship with Google.

  • Hi Tarus – good to hear from you again. I want to point out that I’m not criticising Google for attempting Wave. I’m criticising them for springing it on the market in the state it was. And I see that as being indicative of a corporate culture that while being exciting for their engineers is of great concern for their potential customers.

    Also keep in mind that with a traditional on-premise product that goes end of life, the vendor doesn’t come along and uninstall it.

  • Hi Damien – thanks for your insightful comments. I agree with you that Google has an inventive spirit and that’s great. But it’s one thing launching products like email, calendaring, blogs, photo sharing, etc. and something as far out their as Wave. Something like that (and I’d argue things like Buzz) demand much great user analysis and testing. That is part of the innovation process. But, as I mentioned, their fast often – fail fast culture apparently includes the users. OK, that’s fine. But I think it’s perfectly valid to question whether that approach makes sense for most enterprise customers.

  • Travis Van says:

    Let me guess – Google is not a paying client of Gartner’s.

  • Travis Van – I recommend you look up the definition for the term “circumstantial ad hominem.”

    I welcome all comments, particularly those that disagree with my point of view. My only expectation is that they demonstrate at least a modicum of considered thought.

    BTW – clicking on your name leads me to IT Database, “a PR and marketing research tool for technology companies.” Any affiliation?