The Wave That Drowned

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Here’s the thing: the impulse to look for the next big thing is a good one. But you need a touch of discrimination, and a couple of basic rules to understand if something has a hope of success. If you look at every successful social media innovation, it has met a basic, easy to understand need:

  • I want to publish easily (blogging)
  • I want to share my photos (Flickr)
  • I want a better way of keeping up with my friends (Facebook)
  • I’d like to know what people I’m interested in are thinking (Twitter).

“It’s sorta like e-mail, or a document editor or live chat, all rolled into one” is not a clear statement of need in that way. Some people spotted this and clearly articulated it a year ago. In fact, Wave’s attempt to do something brand new – to create a model of communication and collaboration that had no physical world analogue was the single most interesting thing about it – and I eventually convinced myself that Wave would succeed on that basis alone. I was very wrong. That was what doomed it. People need an idea, a metaphor to hang on to. Apple understands that. That’s why so many interface elements on the iPad, from the Address book to the Notes app, are rooted in existing physical objects. If people can’t grasp the basics of what this service offers in a few minutes, it’s doomed. The shorter you can make that understanding phase, the more chance you’ve got of succeeding.

The other thing to bear in mind is, that for all the hype around Google and Apple right now, neither of them are innovators in the social space. In most cases, what they’re both known for is doing existing stuff much better. There was search and e-mail before Google. There were mobile phones and (apparently) tablets before Apple. These companies just made them into something better and more useful. Their innovation is in refinement and experience, not in concept.

Twitter, Facebook, blogging, Flickr…none of these came from big companies. The majority of the major web innovations that have really taken off have come from small companies, or even tiny teams of innovators. Google was the wrong place to look. It’s too big, it has too many interests and too little focus. It can’t even integrate the start-ups it buys.

Somebody small may yet take the (open sourced) technologies behind Wave and do something really cool, really compelling with some of them. And rather I hope they do.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.