Google Wave has variously been described by commentators as an e-mail killer, a Twitter killer and a SharePoint killer.
To understand the reasons why Google is launching such an ambitious application we need to understand the two battles that Google is fighting at the moment:
Google’s battle with Microsoft for the enterprise
The competition between Microsoft and Google is different from any past battle between giant companies. Pepsi versus Coca-Cola pitted two companies against each other who sold the same thing to the same market. The competition between the two companies produced no lasting change in the nature of soft drinks or the way that we consume them.
Google versus Microsoft pits two companies offering very different applications, delivered in a very different way. This competition promises to be very disruptive and to lead to profound changes in the way information is exchanged within and between organisations.
Microsoft gets its money from organisations. It has excellent relationships with IT departments and it develops products for those IT departments to install on their servers and implement inside organisations.
Google gets its money from the the ecosystem of the world wide web. It makes most of its money from selling advertising on its own sites and others. Most of its products and services are aimed at individuals rather than organisations, are given away free to users and are hosted by Google itself.
The worrying thing for Microsoft is that we have reached a point in time where it is the needs of the ecosystem of the world wide web that is driving technological innovation, not the needs of the enterprise.
Information management practices created by the web ecosystem are being translated into the enterprise, and it is one way traffic. Organisations are trying to adopt wikis, blogs, micromessaging. The web ecosystem is not trying to adopt classifications, metadata profiles, content types, etc.
Monopolies and disruption
The reason why the battle between Google and Microsoft will be so disruptive and so profound is that it is a battle between monopolies. You can’t compete with a monopoly. You can only shake the ground beneath the monopoly’s feet, and undermine the foundations on which the monopoly was built.
In order to get its foot into the enterprise market Google will have to entirely disrupt the basis on which people handle information in the organisation.
Microsoft has a monopoly of the operating systems that organisation’s use (Windows), and of the e-mail and document creation tools that organisations use (Outlook and Office). This has enabled them to build what is fast becoming a monopoly of collaboration and document management within organisations (through SharePoint).
Google would not be able to compete with Microsoft for the hearts and minds of IT departments. IT departments are full of people trained to install, customise, administer, upgrade and integrate Microsoft products. The tie-in is too strong to break.
Google’s previous attempts to break into the enterprise
Google has tried a succession of disruptive tactics to get into the enterprise. Google Wave is a significant step up in this campaign.
Google Docs was a cut down version of Microsoft Word. Google Apps is a cut down version of Microsoft SharePoint. Neither has seriously dented Microsoft’s market share.
Google was competing not on functionality, but on method of delivery.
Google Docs takes advantage of the fact that Google does not need people to buy their software, they just need people to use their services. Google Docs is provided free to individuals. It’s killer strength is that it enables individuals in different organisations to collaborate around a document. A key weakness of Microsoft software, including SharePoint, is that it is very focused on helping people within an organisation to collaborate and does not do enough to make it easy for an individual to collaborate with people outside of their organisation.
Google Apps is Google’s attempt to build on Google Docs by combining it with e-mail, calendaring and collaborative sites to produce a product they can sell it into organisations. It has been reasonably succesful, with some high profile clients (Telegraph Media Group, University of Westminster). Its selling points are that
- it is hosted by Google over the web so the organisation doesn’t need to puchase and configure a server farm for it
- it is significantly less complex than SharePoint
- there is just one version of Google Apps so there is no need to go through the disruption entailed by the need to upgrade to the next version of the product.
It is as though Google’s solution to the problem of not being able to win over IT departments is to provide products that don’t need or make use of the skills that IT departments have.
So far organisations have seemed to prefer SharePoint to Google Apps. SharePoint’s advantages over Google Apps include:
- the ability to develop applications within it
- the ability to suck in data from line of business systems and display them in SharePoint
- the whole ecosystem of plug-ins that vendors are developing for SharePoint to fill in specific gaps or weaknesses.
SharePoint 2007’s integration with Microsoft Office is creating a stranglehold. The stranglehold will be extended with SharePoint 2010, with its tighter inegration with Office 10. You can perform more and more SharePoint tasks from within Word, Excel and Outlook. No other suppliers can compete with that. Other ECMs (enterprise content management systems) will manage information better, with better means of applying taxonomies and management rules. But Microsoft provides the software that people use to create documents, spreadsheets and e-mails in the first place, and organisations will increasingly fear that chosing an alternative ECM will mean they miss out on their colleagues being able to use those tools almost seamlessly with their content management system.
What is Google Wave?
Google has recognised that it cannot offer anything to compete with SharePoint in terms of organising documents and e-mails produced with Microsoft Office and Outlook. Instead it is offering in Google Wave a tool to entice people to gravitate away from those methods of collaborating on and communicating information.
Google Wave collapses all the distinctions between wikis, documents, e-mail and chat. It also straddles the border between the enterprise and the web, the private and the public.
Let us suppose I type some text into a Google Wave and invite you to join it. You have the choice as to whether you treat it as:
I can invite new people to join the Wave at any point. I can show them the entire wave or selected parts of it. They can press a replay button to see a run through of how the Wave has got where it is now. They can leave a comment/reply at any point of the thread.
I could embed a wave to my blog or website, and people can contribute to the wave in much the same way as they would post comments to a blogpost.
The real potential of wave for the enterprise lies with ‘robots’. Google Wave is open source and has an open API. Developers can write ‘robots’ that do things in, or with, Google Waves. For example ‘robots’ could be developed to:
- bring data in from other systems into a Wave
- link a Wave to other systems
- ccapture a Wave into other information systems
- perform useful tasks within the Wave such as spelling or translation.
The range of applications developed for the iPhone transformed the usefulness of that device. The range of robots developed for Google Wave will dictate whether or not Wave does manage to become establish itself as a useful business tool.
What are Google Wave’s chances of breaking into the enterprise?
Communication, by its nature, is viral. If people want to communicate via Google Wave then it will come into the enterprise. Google Wave will succeed if people on the web chose this as their preferred way of working with each other. If that happens then you will find an ecosystem developing around it, just as an ecosystem developed around Twitter. This ecosystem will include:
- client applications to make it easier for people to work with Wave
- gadgets and robots to enable people and organisations to do more with the ‘Waves’ they set up,
- services taking the source code and providing an alternative Wave hosting service to Google
Google has made Wave open source. Organisations can choose to take the source code and host it themselves on their servers if they wish to. Google don’t care whether people use Wave hosted by Google, or by an alternative providor, or by enterprises. they would simply rather people used the Wave format than Microsoft Word, Twitter or Facebook.
There is a strong prospect that ‘robots’ will be developed to work inside Google Wave in such a way as to enable Waves to be integrated with the various information systems in use in the enterprise. Some ‘robots’ will enable people to draw upon data held in organisational systems whilst using Wave. Other ‘robots’ will enable the organisation to capture Waves into their own information systems.
Read this superb post from Openwetware in which a scientist speculates on how Google Wave could be used to improve the process of collaborating on writing scientific research papers, with the help of:
- a ‘robot’ that checks and records agreement between participants on copyright/creative commons licensing
- a ‘robot’ that checks and formatting scholarly references
- a ‘robot’ for registering the wave with the appropriate institutional repository for the University concerned.
The possibility is there for organsiations to deploy robots that capture Waves and register them with whatever type of content management system they deploy (institutional repository/ document management system/ SharePoint, EDRM etc.)
Google’s battle to retain the relevance of its search engine
Web 2 hasn’t found its search engine yet. It is still using Google, which was developed for the first version of the web.
Google’s search predominance is based on its ability to rank web pages in relation to any particular search query, in accordance with the authority that the rest of the web holds those pages, as evidenced by inbound hyperlinks.
The fundamental weakness of the Google search model is that it takes time for an article or blogpost to garner enough inbound links to give it the authority it needs to reach the top of the Google search rankings. Google search is fabulous for topics that I don’t know much about. But it is lousy for keeping in touch with topics that I do know about. If I want to keep in touch with the latest developments in records management and SharePoint I am much better off following people, words or tags on services like Twitter, Friend Feed or Delicious. In these services new blogposts, tweets or comments on that topic are highlighted to me as soon as someone notices them.
Google’s dominance of search is grounded in the days days when the web consisted of static webpages. The growth of Twitter, Facebook and RSS readers moves the web away from the static web page model, to a situation where people experience the web as what Dave Winer calls rivers of news. Twitter and Facebook provides a flowing river of news, updates, comment and chat. My RSS reader provides a river of news.
This is disrupting the world of search. Twitter in particular is a problem for Google. It does not provide Google with good content for its search results, and it provides an alternative to Google for those looking for information.
A tweet is part of a river of information. It is rare for one tweet to be informative enough for it to be worth you clicking on a search result to view it. For that reason there are few inbound links to individual tweets and it is hard for Google to rank them.
Google can’t point to Twitter conversations, because conversations are not threaded. Twitter archives are not accessible beyond a few months back. People looking for information from Twitter do not need to use Google’s search engine. They can run a search within Twitter, they can look at a Twitter hashtag, or simply pose their question to their Twitter followers with a Tweet.
Facebook is a much more closed system than Twitter. Google’s search engine is unable to search most of the huge content present within Facebook. Facebook’s architecture is based on only people in your network of friends being able to see what you post. Twitter’s has a much more open model (where by default any tweet you post is viewable by anyone on the web) and this has enabled Twitter to gain massive publicity. Celebrities and others are using Twitter to publicise themselves, their opinions and their lives. In response Facebook is gradually and awkwardly opening up. But it is no friend of Google. Facebook chose Microsoft rather than Google as an investment partner. Microsoft has invested $240 million in Facebook.
Google’s search model is under threat from the real time web. The search engine for the real time web will filter search results to reflect:
- my point in time (what are people saying ‘now’ about this?)
- my point in space (what are people near here saying about this?)
- my social circle (what are my friends saying about this?)
- my circle of influence (what are the people and sites on the web that I follow saying about this?)
In order to deliver that real time search, a search engine would need to know who I am, where I am, what I am interested in, who I am friends with and who I read.
Google’s strategy has been to turn its search page into a portal, the front page for a whole suite of tools for individual to use. Once I have logged in with my Google account, I can use Google reader for my RSS feeds, Google mail for e-mail, Google docs for my word processing, i-Google as my start page, picassa as my photo album. The more I do with my Google acount the more Google knows about me, and the more likely it is that Google will be able, at some future point, to offer a personalised search experience to me.
So far this strategy has had limited impact on Google’s actual search results. Google’s biggest fears are that the real time web will be captured by services that either offer scant useful content for their engine to discover (Twitter) or are closed to their Search engine (Facebook).
Google Wave is an attempt to shape the way that the real time web develops, in a way that does produce useful content for search engines, and which avoids falling under the domination of any one providor (unless it is Google itself). Google Wave allows people to have real time conversations, in public or private places, and to publish those conversations to the web. It takes real-time one stage further by allowing people to see you actually type in your contribution to the conversation.
Google will host Google Wave but have made it open source and opened up APIs to it so that other hosters could either provide clients for it, or act as an alternative host for wave.
David Coursey has pointed out that it wouldn’t take much of a front end on Google Wave for people to use it as a replacement to something like Twitter or Facebook. It would just need a client that allowed:
- me to subscribe to public waves started by people I am interested in
- other people to subscribe to public waves started by me
- me to track all replies/contributions to waves that I have started
Where is the war between Microsoft and Google taking us?
Google is fighting on a war on two fronts. Microsoft is fighting a war on one. Google is battling for control of computing within organisations to add to its existing dominance of the web. Microsoft is trying to retain and entrench its dominance of organisations, but has little or no prospect of having its products taken up by the ecosystem of the web.
If Microsoft and SharePoint wins the battle for the enterprise, then organisational computing stays very seperate from practices on the web. If Google and Google Wave wins the battle then organisational computing almost merges with the ecosystem of the web.