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Innovation is a Roller Coaster: Google Wave and the Gartner Hype Cycle

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Remember us? The Google Wave team!

In late May last year, we unveiled an ambitious collaboration and communications project called Google Wave. The project was well received. Very well, in fact. About 4000 developers assembled in San Francisco at Google's annual I/O event rose to their feet and loudly applauded our hour-long presentation. A YouTube video of the demo has been viewed more than 9 million times. Experts predicted we actually stood a chance of pulling it off. Millions of people wanted to try out the invitation-only preview we were launching later in the year. Wave became Twitter's top trending technology topic of 2009. It was quite a bit more attention -- some would call it hype -- than we had expected.

The next 6 months or so were among the most exhilarating in our careers. Interest in Wave continued unabated. CNN called us "geniuses." Time Magazine wrote of a "Wave New World" and called Wave an "insanely useful app." National newspapers in my native Denmark ran double-page spreads with our story. The first million-or-so users we invited to try Wave late last year loved it and used it a lot despite the thoroughly unfinished state of our still preview-grade service. It seemed obvious we had a real hit on our hands! We felt, frankly, like rockstars.

And right then everything went South. Fast.

The Gartner Hype Cycle describes how initial enthusiasm for new technologies is often followed by a period of disillusionment before the new technology matures. As the cycle predicts, we quickly coasted past the "Peak of Inflated Expectations" and plunged headlong into the dreaded "Trough of Disillusionment."

The remaining five million or so who had asked to try our preview were much less forgiving than the first million. Retention rates of new users dropped enormously during December and January. Twitter filled with "Got Google Wave -- now what?" memes. Worse yet: early, enthusiastic users slowly trickled out as their friends weren't quite up for using Wave, yet. Awe of our demo was quickly replaced by predictions of certain failure.

I wish I could claim sufficient experience to have fully expected the backlash, and the ability to simply shrug it off as par for the course. After all, my previous project, Google Maps, had gone through a similar cycle, and others had indeed predicted it'd happen to Wave as well. Not so. For workaholics like me, the "Trough" is a gut-wrenching place to be.

But enough of my whining, already.

The good news is that, increasingly, people are reporting being able to use Google Wave for getting real work done. And that it indeed makes them more productive. We hear this particularly from teams collaborating on projects that require lots of coordination and communication.

Since starting our invitation-only preview about half a year ago, we have significantly improved Wave's speed, stability and ease of use. And I believe that, in the lingo of Gartner's Hype Curve, Google Wave has reached the foothills of the "Slope of Enlightenment": the product is mature enough that real use cases are emerging, and these use cases amply illustrate the new technology's benefits.

For this reason, today we opened up Google Wave to everyone. You no longer need an invitation to use the service. Simply go to wave.google.com and sign right in. Likewise, if you administer a Google Apps domain, you can now easily enable Google Wave for all your users at no extra cost. Google Wave is now officially part of Google Labs, the same place my team launched Google Maps close to 5 years ago.If you tried Google Wave earlier and found it not quite ready for real use, we think you'll find that a lot has changed, and now is a good time to give it another look.

We hear repeatedly -- and this matches my own team's experience -- that Google Wave changes the way you work, sometimes in subtle and unexpected ways.

For example, we worked hard on character-by-character liveness in Wave primarily to speed up conversations. But now users report that seeing others typing in real-time makes it feel more like talking directly to the other participants, rather than merely writing to an inanimate email address. This in turn results in healthier and more enjoyable debates. We heard this both from small teams working together on some project, and from the more than 1000 youths spread across some 100 countries who used Google Wave to debate climate change.

Likewise, we decided to let participants edit each other's messages primarily so Google Wave can be used for collaborating on content in addition to having discussions. For example, I wrote this blog post in Google Wave with six other team members, and can't think of a better tool for such a task. But it also turns out that many tasks we used to think of as pure discussions move and converge a lot faster in Google Wave because of the collaborative editing. Typically, the top of a wave is used by all participants to record the current state -- and eventually the conclusion -- of discussions taking place elsewhere in the wave.

Glibly put, Google Wave helps your team get on the same page faster. (We, of course, call that getting on the same wave.)

To share a few stories: Deloitte's As One project team greatly accelerated productivity by using Wave in place of email. Lyn and Line use Wave to coordinate their software coding, Clear Channel Radio coordinates ad campaigns, a language class writes Latin poetry, a systems programmer runs his Web business, a group of artists teach virtual art classes, and a group of students write academic papers, all using Google Wave. Gina Trapani and Adam Pash used Wave to coordinate writing their book about Wave.

My own team, has long since stopped using email or document editors in our work. We use Wave for, well, pretty much everything: discussions, design documents, voting and polling, task and bug tracking, planning and running our release, test and build processes, and writing PR, help center and marketing material. And of course for planning team outings. We have even begun running public forums in Wave. When emailing with someone not yet using Wave, it literally feels like traveling decades back in time. Other teams at Google have made the switch and report similar experiences.

It is clear that Google Wave's early sweetspot lies with groups of people collaborating on specific projects. This should not surprise anyone; that is after all how the Wave team itself uses Wave every day. We have, however, seen other promising uses of Wave, that I believe point to a broader future role for the technology. For example, The Debatewise Global Youth panel organized a climate-change debate in Wave. Some 1000 youths across 100 countries took part. Conferences like eComm, LCA 2010 and HASTAC 2010 used wave for tracking and discussing their sessions. Public waves were used to coordinate efforts to help Haiti after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. Wave played a role in The Seattle Times' Pulitzer Prize winning news coverage, and Chicago Now experimented with Wave to better engage their userbase.

Already at this early stage, some of the best parts of Wave have been built outside of Google. We chose last year to unveil our project very early in its development exactly for this reason. To encourage others to include waves in their own Web apps such as Salesforce.com's Chatter, to extend Google Wave into new applications like UnaWave, and to build their own, interoperating Wave services. Wide-spread adoption of Wave requires it be based on open technology -- just like email is -- and we have begun open sourcing our own code to that end. Novell will support Wave in their new Pulse product, SAP in their StreamWork suite, and several startups and community projects have formed around wave technology.

I'd like to close by profusely thanking the millions of users and developers who have helped test Google Wave during the last 6 months of our preview. We know it has been rocky and frustrating at times, but your feedback has been invaluable to us, and we've been working hard to make Wave more stable and feature rich over the past few months! If you haven't logged in for a while, come back and try it again. In particular if you are working on a team project at work, at school or at home. Hope to see you on Wave...

Happy Waving,

Lars Rasmussen and the Google Wave Team

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