Waving Goodbye: The PR Lesson of the Failure Google Wave

Back in December, I wrote a post on Google Wave.  I'd tried out the tool and could see it was clearly innovative, but I wasn't convinced.  Not surprising, though, since I'm not typically an early adopter when it comes to technology (I still don't own a smartphone).  I just assumed I wasn't savvy or cool enough to really "get" Google Wave.

Not true, apparently, as Google recently pulled the plug on the Wave project.  For something so hyped as Wave – headlines originally hailed it as an e-mail killer and "the most destructive thing to ever hit the workplace" – from a company as big as Google to fail is a pretty big deal.

And, to be sure, plenty of media outlets made a big deal of it.  Yet, from a public relations standpoint, it's remarkable that the failure barely made a dent in Google's image.  In fact, in many cases, the result seemed to be the opposite, serving to brighten Google's halo.

While tech outlets like PCWorld and ZDNet seemed to relish in pointing out all the reasons Wave failed, Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School, wrote a blog post for the Harvard Business Review blogs site entitled "Google Wave Decision Shows Strong Innovation Management."  Similarly, the New York Times mentioned Google as an model of how to learn from failure in an article on non-profits.

How did Google escape (relatively) unscathed from what could easily have been the public relations disaster typical of a pet project falling from the pedestal on high?  Well, it helps that Google had a very strong brand to begin with, which was built on very strong products.  But it's also worth noting that Google admitted its mistake, did so relatively early, and did so transparently.  Sure, there were plenty of critics in the early days of Wave, but ultimately Google was able to control the message by being open and admitting that the product failed.  It's interesting to compare Google's failure with the recent iPhone antenna debacle, during which Apple was practically dragged kicking and screaming into admitting that its product wasn't the most perfect thing ever to grace the Earth.

Google didn't try to cover up the failure of Wave, didn't blame the situation on stupid users (though there were probably plenty, including myself), and mitigated crisis by striking a confident, 'we've-already-moved-on' tone in a blog post notifying the public of the decision

Consider the end of the post:

But despite these wins, and numerous loyal fans, Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked. We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product, but we will maintain the site at least through the end of the year and extend the technology for use in other Google projects. The central parts of the code, as well as the protocols that have driven many of Wave’s innovations, like drag-and-drop and character-by-character live typing, are already available as open source, so customers and partners can continue the innovation we began. In addition, we will work on tools so that users can easily “liberate” their content from Wave.

Wave has taught us a lot, and we are proud of the team for the ways in which they have pushed the boundaries of computer science. We are excited about what they will develop next as we continue to create innovations with the potential to advance technology and the wider web.

Criticize Wave all you want as a product, but I think Google effectively took the wind out of critics' sails in terms of corporate image.  The company made it clear it's moved on, still values the innovation of the product, is proud of its employees and isn't afraid to keep taking risks with innovative products.  It's hard to poke holes in that. 

Contributed by Catharine Morgan.  Follow her @c_morgan.