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August 05, 2010

Don't Look for Hints of Buzz Demise After Wave's Closure

During last fall's debut of Google Wave, which seemed to be a launch of a complicated solution in search of a problem, I was immediately struck by the overwhelming nature of the platform, which inundated me with update after update and parallel conversations all vying for my attention. Not unsurprisingly, I stepped back from the product, as many people did - hoping it would improve in simplicity and utility over time, eventually becoming a product I could use for collaboration and real-time messaging. But that day never came. Like many products, much of Wave ended up being all about itself - as people first were attracted to its novelty, and later, many threads were all about how to best utilize it, with tips and tricks. It was there because it could be, not because it should be.

Wednesday's announcement that Google Wave has been discontinued as a stand-alone product is not dramatic for almost all people, as it wasn't being used all that much, beyond tire kicking, as people seeking social outlets went one way, and those seeking collaboration stuck to more traditional tools. Wave didn't kill e-mail or any social tool, and pieces of it will live on in other Google products as the company says they have learned from the episode.

With rumors of Google Me flying about, and Google Buzz still not having entirely recovered from some early misguided press and unclear utility in a social world dominated by Facebook and Twitter, it is logical to wonder, for some, if the Mountain View owned aggregation and sharing site will follow Wave to an early end. I would not be so fast to reach this conclusion, even if Google hasn't done as solid a job in marking product milestones the way they have finally determined how to make big splash launch announcements. The product, as best as I can tell, sees regular updates, with more features in the queue, and has a good, if not overwhelming, level of use from casual to devoted participants. And it seems very logical that even if Google doubles down with a new product like "Me", as rumored, that Buzz would play a major part in its development - as would the company's expanded Google Profiles.

At its end, Google Wave, for Google, was as much an application environment as it was a destination. Thus, its closure should not have elicited any more of a response than if we learned Google had abandoned the Go programming language, or Closure tools. But Wave wasn't hyped as a development platform or a bucket of features. It was thought of as potentially disrupting e-mail, and as recently as the South By Southwest conference (SXSW), the company's GMail team was being asked questions about competing with Wave for attention and resources at Google, and the panel called it "a leapfrog project" for the future Web, not today's Web.

Google Buzz is not a leapfrog project. It's hard for Google to force a leapfrog when it is they who are playing catchup in the social space. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has repeatedly stated the world does not need a Facebook clone, but it does seriously need a real alternative. Today, Buzz is not that alternative, and the team's developers never positioned it as a Facebook killer, Twitter killer or anything of that nature - instead focusing on building the product on open standards for sharing of content, and we have seen the Buzz buttons populate the Web in a way that less-successful products, FriendFeed included, never did.

Multiple sites, including TechCrunch and GigaOM, have reported Google has a new head of social in the company's VP of Engineering, Vic Gundotra. Vic was present at blogger pre-briefings of Google Buzz back in February, and participated in the official launch on stage at their Mountain View campus, so he is very close to the team. Additionally, as I've previously mentioned, Google co-founder Sergey Brin is particularly keen on Buzz's success, and the company most certainly does not want to lose even more page views and advertising opportunities to social competitors.

That said, Google Buzz hasn't immediately captured the imagination of users and seen dramatic growth some have expected for it, although statistics for its use are practically impossible to find. Even as Google said it was not intended to be a head-on competitor to Facebook, it has instead been regarded internally as an extension of Gmail, and that likely isn't the best place to have an active social network, even as Schmidt says the team "is doing very well".

Following Buzz's debut and initial privacy bumps, the team discussed introducing new features as regularly as once a week - and visible introductions, ranging from the official Buzz buttons to integrated comment and like histories by account, have popped up, but the fanfare from Google has been minimal - as the company continues to do a less than stellar job of continuing to get press from iterative updates.

In a discussion I had with Google employees recently about why they choose to stay at the company instead of going to an IPO-bound alternative, most notably Facebook and Twitter, one responded that working at Google was like working with future technology that was anywhere from 12 to 18 months away, and that, like light reaching the Earth from stars extremely far away, we are working on technology that is itself somewhat dated.

With one foot deep in speculation and the other on more firm ground, I can't help but believe some of the relative quiet around Buzz from the Google team is related to their being focused on something else that leverages their work in a big way - the next social volley, whatever it turns out to be. But Buzz isn't going to get eighty-sixed only six months after launch. I think what we are seeing instead is the emergence out of the "Trough of Disillusionment" so popularized by Gartner's Hype cycle, and a slope toward productivity. When it climbs that slope, it might still be called Buzz, or it may have a new name, but it isn't going away soon.

You can, of course, find me on Buzz here: http://www.google.com/profiles/louisgray.