Lessons from Google Wave and MSFT Kin
I’m a fan of things going wrong. It’s only when things go wrong that anyone pays attention enough to really learn something, or get the courage to try something new.
Recently there were two high profile failures, at two Fortune 500 tech companies. Microsoft’s failed cell-phone Kin, and Google’s hard to define Wave. I thought it’d be fun to compare and distill some lessons.
Change requires a champion: Kin is one in a long line of failures for the mobile space for Microsoft. Although it was formed by a different group, and led with a different vision, it was canceled a shocking handful of weeks after its release. This generally signifies senior management failure: a rule of thumb is either can it before it launches, or give it the runway it needs to succeed. To kill a product after 40 days signifies several layers of mistakes or a (poorly timed/surprise) changing of the guard. The exit of VPs J. Allard and Robbie Bach, seems like a link in the story. Allard is the story behind XBOX, one of Microsoft’s best stories around innovation.
Google Wave was weird, but cheap. Compared to Kin, which likely involved dozens of people and man-months, Wave was likely done by a small team of people. That was their biggest cost! If you’re going to have failures, even visible ones, better cheap and small, that expensive and large.
As a rule, any software in this century that reinvents the scroll bar deserves to fail. Sure, there might be a better design, but what do you gain in putting your neck out for it? There’s just no reason to place a bet, even a side bet, on a scroll bar and perhaps that’s it – wave was just weird. It was interesting, but often in the wrong ways. Whatever goodness might have lurked inside, it was hidden inside an onion of seemingly odd choices that required a lot of explaining. And it was slow too. Weird and slow negates most other kinds of goodness because few people will stick around long enough to experience them.
However the fact that Wave stayed out in the wild longer than Kin means the team that made it got a chance to learn tons. This is awesome. This is smart. They got to be involved in a live, mass market, real time experiment in trying to do whatever it was they were trying to do. For them, Wave is far from a failure. It was one of the best learning experiences they might ever have.
The Kin team however, having had the runway pulled out from under them, likely learned nothing. They’re probably bitter about all of the concept sacrifices they had to make to get it out the door, and likely blame those sacrifices for why it was as poorly received as it was.
But worse, I suspect there won’t even be a postmortem written for the team, or the company. The lessons of Kin will likely die with Kin, instead of being shared openly so everyone learns from the multitude of experiences the smart people on the project had.
An easy metric of innovation culture is learning – are people at all levels learning, sharing and growing from whatever happens, good or bad. Not lip-service. But actual learning, where people admit their own mistakes or oversights and what they themselves might have done differently (rather than the witch-hunt many big companies confuse with learning).
This starts with the leaders, and the leaders on Kin or Wave have much fodder to work with. Are they going to share what they learned? Progress awaits if they do. But resentment, confusion and high odds for the same mistakes being made again will fester if they don’t.
Anywhere that people learn from success and failure will outpace places that lack the courage to look at failures with their eyes open and learn from it, as well as places that don’t learn anything at all.
I regret that the default ROM on a Kin—as well as the user-research guiding it and user-data in using it—is lost as well. I got to play with a friend’s Kin for all of 10 minutes at a pub one evening. It was not for me but it sure was interesting—a very task-based approach to using a mobile handset. It was built for an audience with really interesting needs from a handset. I think the ROM is a greater loss for interaction/experience designers in general than even the post mortem findings within the company.
Tiff: Ok, I’ll admit I don’t know what ROM stands for. Help?
Great article, Scott.
I think part of the problem with Wave was that Google struggled to position it properly.
I saw a talk by Lars Rasmussen, the guy who invented it and managed the whole project, and he couldn’t even give a description as to what it was or why you’d want to use it.
Hopefully as you say the knowledge gained by the team will be used to help other Google products.
Wave was definitely not cheap.
Leo: fair enough, but I bet it was an order of magnitude cheaper than Kin.
Ah, you know, perhaps I don’t. I mean the UI flavor on top of the operating system. I’ve gathered they’re called ROMs. I run a custom, crowd-assembled ROM on my android phone and the wording within the community is typically, ‘do you have the newest ROM’. It still means Read-Only Memory but the context is the default system operations, which is somehow different in that it is packagable by uber-nerds. Shrug.
Since the Kin was a Windows 7 mobile phone, the UI for its users was a custom build for that particular phone. That’s the part I meant to lament, if you’ll overlook my crappy use of acronyms I don’t quite follow.
When a project is killed by new management, I think you’ll find that postmortems are pretty rare. New management knows what was wrong with the project–that’s why they killed it. So nothing for them to learn, right? (Apologies to wise managers out there who always have something to learn.)
Walter: Indeed – there’s a bunch of self fulfilling traps with “new management”. Clearly everything done before the new management started must be bad/wrong, otherwise why would the new management have been hired? :) So new management repeats a bunch of the same mistakes, since they chose to be blind to them.
To be fair in a way, most postmortems are done poorly, even if they are done at all. Doing one doesn’t guarantee anything.
@Tiff: Kin was most definitely not any sort of flavor or relative of Windows Phone 7. The entire platform and software stack was completely different and derived from Danger rather than Windows Phone.
Not to say there are no visual similarities in some facets of the UI treatment, but these are relatively superficial.
Kin decisions were made for the people by top managers. Each time you have top management design you end up with a lousy product. It may still succeed, top managers are occasionally manage to hire good marketers, but it still will be lousy. The reason is simple: top managers are too busy with their politics to take a stand on a product concept or a feature. Taking a stand may result in a good product, but a lot of lost network value for the manager himself. So, none of them dares to ask hard question “What is it? Why is it different? Why people would want it?” Or worse, original good concept is polluted with stuff dropped from the top by the people who are higher in the feed chain but don’t bother understand the product they just hijacked from another top manager.
Wave failure could be for similar reason but implemented by the “ground troops”. They managed to release a product without explaining even for themselves what is it this things that they are doing… Looks like they were busy being polite to each other instead of a product concept.
The real telling difference between Wave and the Kin is what Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google had to say recently about the failure of Wave. He said “we celebrate failures”. His point wasn’t that he was happy that Wave failed, but that Google would learn from the failure and incorporate the learning into new products and services. You can bet your bottom dollar the project within Microsoft has been shut down and all the participants disbanded.
The failure at Google will result in a positive outcome eventually. The failure at Microsoft will result in more conservative thinking, more inward focus and more careful engineering, leading further away from innovation.
From a previous comment:
“Each time you have top management design you end up with a lousy product.”
That’s true far more often than not at Microsoft. That’s very much not true at companies like Apple. It entirely depends on your organization, clarity of mission/goals, and people who truly care about creating world-class products.
Useful to mention:
– I worked at Microsoft for 9 years. 3 years were great, 2 were good, 4 were bad
– I use and love products from both companies (writing this on a MacBook Pro in Safari with a VMWare image behind the window running WinXP and Outlook 2007).
– I’m not a fanboy of either company, I’m a fan of great products that solve real (my) needs
Google has failed to pitch their best effort in the right way. Since Google Wave isn’t a service for everyone, most of the people had ignored. Even I waited for so many days to get an invitation and activation.
Once I get the invitation I was the only one among my friends who’s using Google wave. I was almost desperate and left the service later.
When people started using it, I lost the interest in the product.
Google Buzz, they’ve pitched it right. Integrated with GMail and Immediately helped people to follow each other and still growing.
Still Google wave technology can be used in Google Wave to make it more interesting and less shitty like wave.
I never heard of KIN until the project was dropped. So nothing to say about it.
both the products were on the line of failure from the first day they were incepted. but failure does not mean that the companies are going bankrupt . do they? no they still continue to give us products. Microsoft as usual gives us products that gives people stress. and google brings products that makes things cheap to handle(money wise).
Allard is the story behind XBOX, one of Microsoft’s best stories around innovation.
Hopefully as you say the knowledge gained by the team will be used to help other Google products.