Did Google Learn the Wrong Lessons from Buzz and Wave?

I hope my toddler never touches a hot stove, but if she does, she’ll know not to touch one again. At an extreme she may even get cautious around stoves since she remembers the pain from her first encounter. Turns out, companies aren’t too different from kids. They have institutional awareness and learn “lessons” about which stoves are hot to the touch. Google touched hot stoves with Buzz and Wave. Is it possible these challenged products taught them the wrong lessons? Ones which are holding back GMail and Google Docs as collaboration tools like Slack, Quip and others innovate?

The crippling potential of organizational memory first became apparent to me 350 miles south of Google’s HQ. I’d always wanted to work at a toy company so the chance to intern with Mattel while in grad school was pretty awesome. Spending a summer in Los Angeles, living by the beach and helping their Interactive team define a video game strategy = awesome. One big question was “why had Mattel been so late/tentative to video games given (a) the market was huge, (b) they had great IP and (c) their core customer was moving away from traditional toys?” The answer was complicated. In fact Mattel had been early to video gaming, releasing Intellivision in 1979, right after Atari’s pioneered the 2600. Mattel’s console flopped and almost bankrupted the classic toy company. It was a hot stove moment. They touched it, got burned and then had institutional reluctance to go back to gaming in a meaningful way for two decades. Ooops.

So what could be the *wrong* lessons Google learned from Buzz and Wave?

1) That you shouldn’t try to make Gmail social [Buzz]

2) That people aren’t ready for online collaborative spaces [Wave]

In fact I’d suggest Buzz and Wave were exactly the direction for Google, just fatally flawed at the time. Gmail as communication hub is the right place to continue exploring how we connect with people, especially the enterprise version of Google Apps. Slack, Hipchat, Kato, Intercom are just some of the post-Wave/Buzz products which resonate with me. Add Quip and some other to-be-announced startups which are reimagining document creation.

Remember, Gmail was a polarizing product at start and 10 years later, it’s time to challenge users again but in their identity as professionals rather than consumers. Within the enterprise environment you can make certain assumptions about use cases. Buzz was GREAT inside Google’s LDAP – it flailed when uncomfortably forced into a more open-ended set of consumer scenarios without sufficient testing. Why does Google not have many Enterprise-first products? Perhaps because historically the Enterprise products were always been downstream from the Consumer team (not sure if that’s still case), which greatly decreased the likelihood you’d get enterprise-specific features. Sure it’s easy to say that a family planning a vacation is the same as a team creating a marketing plan and they can use the same generalized tools. Except it’s not really true.

So I’m hoping the Google Apps team has some forward-looking takes on Gmail and collaborative spaces in the pipeline. And I hope this next vision took a while because, well, these projects are complex. And not because Google learned the wrong lessons from touching hot stoves.