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Why the Demise of Google Wave is Good for Facebook

The early demise of Google Wave, Google’s attempt to revolutionise online communication through a combination of instant messaging, email and wiki-style document editing, has sent a fair ripple of shock across the online world. In spite of a few naysayers who queried the slow roll-out of invitations to the Wave platform, and concern over the product’s lack of compatibility with leading browser Internet Explorer, the decision to suspend development, due to lack of users, raised a few eyebrows. How then does Google Wave’s demise benefit that other online powerhouse, Facebook?

It must be acknowledged that Wave was not a social networking platform in the same way as Facebook. Although many users signed up for Wave without really knowing what to do with it, its most useful application was generally held to be the ability to collaborate on documents with colleagues in real-time without the various traditional problems of version control. So while instant messaging might have appeared to be treading on Facebook’s toes, Wave was not really competition in the same way that, for example, Google Buzz might be – the newer service that is mobile phone friendly and making much more of a conscious grab for the social networking market.

In terms of branding, however, the demise of Wave is interesting. In the last decade, Google has developed or acquired a staggering portfolio of online success stories: the search engine itself, Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Earth, and so on. Facebook, in spite of massive take-up (somewhere north of 500 million reported users now), has come in for a bit of a hard time recently over everything from their cavalier attitude to members’ personal details to child protection issues and even the policing of content (the recent furore in the UK press over Facebook tribute groups to dead murderer Raoul Moat). A Google failure deflects the pundits’ attention away from Facebook’s problems, however sanguine Google claim to be about the decision to axe Wave.

Potential newcomers to social networking, assuming they are thinking of opting either for Facebook or Google Buzz (most will probably sign up for both and then spend most time on the one that more of their friends use), may well react to the news of Wave’s cancellation by going with Facebook. After all, if Wave was suspended, why shouldn’t Buzz go the same way?

But corporate posturing aside, Google Wave introduced a new way of working for many people (for all the ‘lack of users’ it did have a few million members). Creators Jens and Lars Rasmussen talked about the project in conceptual terms as an evolution of e-mail, but it was also a great basic business idea. They identified a need: version control becoming a problem when people in different locations need to collaborate on a document or project (a problem becoming more widespread in the online age where many work remotely), and then designed a product to fulfil the need.

Google Wave offered people a solution to a problem they didn’t necessarily know they had, but you needed all your colleagues to have access to the service, which was difficult in the early stages. Facebook has all the members in place, and although Google have said elements of Wave’s software will be included in their own future projects, some of the most interesting bits, specifically the instant message software that enables you to see people’s instant messages character by character as they type, are already open source and ripe for development for Facebook app designers.

Even if there are compatibility problems which mean that the real-time features take a while to be adapted for Facebook, a lot of people are going to be needing a new project development platform in the near future, and Facebook’s member base, and the ability to create a private group on which you can share documents, will at least be as adequate a solution as any other for the time being.

Wave’s demise is good for Facebook. Like all Google products it was well-designed and powerful, but unlike most Google products it didn’t have the userbase to support it. Facebook has the members, and all it needs is a few third party developers to use the technology to write a few killer apps and real-time document sharing could be within everyone’s reach, and mobile phone compatible. Such a development would go some way to lending Facebook legitimacy as a professional service – helping to end the tendency of productivity-conscious employers to restrict access to the site.

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