Google Wave Should Beware of the 'Communications and Collaboration' Pitch

It Shouldn't Be if It Wants Mainstream American to Care About It

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Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
(Author's Disclaimer: I have not personally tried Google Wave. I have read plenty of reviews and I think I will wait to use it unless, of course, someone at Google wants a user who will unequivocally break it. I have even once been accused of breaking the internet, but that's never been confirmed.)

My curiosity about Google Wave was naturally piqued, given my AT&T creds, but frankly their "communications and collaboration" motto is what caught my attention. I wanted to see how a company whose DNA rests in "search/ad platform/digital" technologies would go about creating a communications and collaboration solution.

(Author's Disclaimer #2: If you are looking for me to review it and hoping I will hate it, stop reading now. I haven't tried it. And based on talking to my colleagues who have actually tried it, I am pleased to say generally there is an expectant hope for it -- much like the expectation one might have at a party hyped to be cool but that just got started. So Google bashers move on.)

At first glance, the nuts and bolts are a mash-up of a unified messaging platform with a heavy does of real time collaboration. Mashable describes it this way:

Google Wave is a real-time communication platform. It combines aspects of e-mail, instant messaging, wikis, web chat, social networking, and project management to build one elegant, in-browser communication client. You can bring a group of friends or business partners together to discuss how your day has been or share files.

Whew! Heady stuff.

Unified messaging platforms of the 1990s had similar grand descriptions (sans the web chat, social networks bits) and given my work at Lucent and AT&T, we constantly struggled to explain it to consumers. The idea of all your voice, e-mail, faxes, voicemail in "one easy to manage" mailbox made so much sense. It did so much -- who wouldn't want it!

Google Wave
Google Wave
Ultimately, though, we failed, and unified messaging, as it was conceived, never fully took off for a few reasons. First, it required quite a steep learning curve to work it properly. Then, there was the "high daily maintenance" needed to make it worthwhile. Finally, despite the heft of the solution, consumers often said, "but what problem does it solve?" That question was not answered well back then and I hear echoes of that question today.

(Disclaimer #3: To be technically accurate, the early vision of unified messaging never came to fruition, but much of the technology introduced in those early days did make its way into the digicom infrastructure. Voice mail sent to your email inbox is one example.)

Looking back at it now, I realize what we failed to do last time around is to symbiotically couple this whiz-bang technology with fulfilling a fundamental dimension of our humanity. Technology by itself is sterile and a communication and collaboration play was pretty sterile sounding. This time round, though, Google Wave really has a chance to get it right if it forges a tight symbiotic link between this technology and a core element of our humanity.

So, you wonder, what might that symbiotic link look like in the case of Google Wave?

One could argue that "communications and collaboration" is a technology platform that, because of its ability to connect people, fulfills the symbiotic requirement I mention above. Perhaps, but I don't think so. The annals of tech history are filled with the sad, abandoned shells of unified messaging platforms from companies like AT&T, Bell Companies, Lucent, Cisco, etc. No one questions the importance of connecting people. To my way of thinking, it is a means to an end -- not really an end unto itself.

For inspiration, then, let's look at what fueled the biggest internet successes over the past few years and we'll find our answer there. Without a doubt, recent successful companies focus on providing technology that fulfills our deeply rooted, collective and vital need to be a part of a trusted community. Joining, starting and living in a digital community is a far more powerful dynamic than the need to "connect" because connecting has no value without a community to connect to.

If you question this conclusion, let's look at the evidence. Over the years, tens of millions was spent by big communications companies promoting the different flavors of unified messaging. Yet none achieved mainstream success. Contrast that to the near universal adoption of social networking which happened in less than 24 months! There's just no comparison -- "community" wins over "connectivity" hands down. And lest any of you throw the "free" variable into the debate -- Google, Facebook, etc. will be/are free whereas unified messaging was not -- it's useful to remember that for end users -- unified messaging often WAS free because it was purchased for them by the company. They still didn't bite despite corporate pressure to use it.

It all comes down to understanding that Google Wave should be about the creation and management of our trusted communities. And if it can take those bonds and marry them with real-time, unified communications, the product has the makings of a technology milestone. But without the human dimension of community, "communications and collaboration" are just technologies. And technologies alone will not "connect" with Judy Consumer. At least it never has before.

Judy Shapiro is senior VP at Paltalk and has held senior marketing positions at Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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