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Reminiscing about Buzz and Wave at the birth of Google+

It’s not a secret that I love Google. I love their original web search service, I love Gmail, I love Google Docs, I love Google Maps, I love that they use Linux, I love that they use Python, I love their products.

Still, like more or less everyone, I hated Buzz and I got very disillusioned by Wave very quickly; though I probably held on to some hope about Wave a bit after most people had given up on it.

It would be very easy at this stage to make a list of why I think Google Wave went meh and Google Buzz went bust. Today, as Google is trying to keep their new service, Google+, from going down in flames the way Buzz and Wave did, that list is what I’m shamelessly about to do. That said, it’s not really a list: all the items on it can be rephrased as, “The problem was that it was more about Google than about its users.”


First, Buzz. It never bothered me that Buzz disclosed users’ locations or that it peeked into their contact lists. I never let Google know about my location at the time and I never actually went so far as to give Buzz a serious try. And here is why: what bugged me was that Buzz wanted me to change all of my friends or maybe even get new one. Let me explain. I have one general-purpose microblogging system I use: Twitter, like pretty much everyone. There are two main places where my Tweets show up: Twitter and Facebook. Actually, when people see my Tweets, most of the time, they see them on Facebook.

If Buzz had seamlessly let me pick up Buzzes from Twitter or let me send Buzzes to Twitter and Facebook, I would probably have given it serious consideration. But that’s not how it went. Buzz was, at its launch, a completely independent service that required everyone who used it to get everyone they knew to switch to it. According to Google, if you wanted to stay friends with me, you’d have to give up Facebook and Twitter for Buzz. But why would I inconvenience everyone I know plus myself in that way when not switching to Buzz and keeping Facebook and Twitter was so much easier?

But Buzz didn’t stop there. It nagged. Oh, how it nagged! My main email interface is web-based Gmail. Google put a link to Buzz in the main Gmail menu, as if it were part of Gmail. But following the link opened a new window making it a double annoyance: adding a link where it did not belong and opening a window unnecessarily. Then, they did the same with iOS interface of Gmail. The there is very little available space at the top of the screen of the iPhone and Google put not one but two links to Buzz there: a text link and a horrible, nagging little Buzz logo. I thought of leaving Gmail. Then, when users were trying to read their mail, a nag screen prevented them from using Gmail in order to urge them to try Buzz. I almost left Gmail at that point.


Wave was a sad, similar story. It reminded me of how brilliant Gmail was. Gmail added so much to the existing concept of email and did it all by staying discreet and in the background. Wave could, technically, have done the same thing. You could have sent a wave to someone on Google and if they only had Gmail, they would get it as a an email and if they also have Wave, they would get it as a wave. Sure, there might have been a few issues, mostly that Wave-specific features would not have gone through by email: the then famous Wave apps would not have worked and the conversation could not have continued as a Wave, but it would have been smooth and easy to use and, most of all, non-intrusive. It would not have mattered whether people had Wave or not to just use it and it would have encouraged them to switch to Wave if they had received a wave as an email. The focus would have been the users, the people, and not Google.

Instead, just like with Buzz, in order for Wave to work, everyone had to stop using email and start using Wave. This, of course, did not happen. If I know someone, let’s call him E Maginary, and I’m not sure if E has Wave, it’s much easier to send him an email. If E does have Wave and I send him a wave, that means that for me he has to check his waves and for everyone else he has to check his email. Even if more than one person sends him waves, it’s still an annoying extra step until more people use waves than email. And that annoyance is exactly what makes such a tipping point impossible to reach. So E is going to find it annoying if I send him a wave. And honestly I sympathize with him. Had it been possible to receive a wave as an email, this would not have been the case.


Now there is a major difference between Wave and Buzz. Buzz had pretty much no reason to exist rather than profit Google. It tried to become popular almost exclusively by nagging Google’s users. Wave, on the other hand, was a fantastic product with potentially unlimited potential that got destroyed by putting Google first and Google’s users last. I won’t hide the fact that I’m still angry about that.

Some great ideas that were made unusable by a few big flaws can be fixed and changed into amazing stuff, even after a long time has passed. Apple users know that. The G4 Cube led to the Mac Mini; the Newton led to the iPhone; and what is probably still Steve Jobs greatest technical accomplishment, NeXTSTEP, led in great part to the creation of Mac OS X. For some of these, particularly the Newton and the iPhone, I still think that despite their difference in success, the first one is more worthy of praise than its successor. But that’s just me.

Maybe Google+ will have something genuinely useful to offer, maybe not. My main hope for it is not really that it’s good (I’m not part of Google, so I don’t really care) but that if it is good, its greatness is be unencumbered and unrestrained by anything around it.