Remember Google Wave?
Gmail had quickly become the most popular email service, enough that invites to the free service were bid up on eBay. Google Docs made modern collaboration possible, spooked Microsoft enough to build free, web-based versions of its Office tools. Google itself had become a verb, synonymous with searching the internet. The giant could do no harm.
And it’s not like Google Wave was an impossibly bad idea. Essentially, it was chat merged with email merged with Google Docs, things Google had already built merged into one. We already had collaborative documents and chat; why not collaborative email? Everything you typed could show up in real-time—faster is better, no need to wait for a reply, or so they thought.
Everyone wanted to try it; invites went up on eBay again. “I thought Google Wave was the future of the internet,” remembered Box CEO Aaron Levie in an interview years later. “I was wrong.”
Google Wave crashed. Hard. Just over a year being announced, and only a couple months after opening to the public, Google Wave joined the Google graveyard.
Contrast Google Wave with the innovation that made Wave possible: The World Wide Web.
The web wasn’t such a new idea when Tim Berners-Lee published the first website in late 1990. Berners-Lee himself had started building a linked notebook along similar lines a decade earlier; Douglas Engelbart’s “mother of all demos” showcased linked documents (along with almost an early Zoom and Google Docs) in 1968. Ted Nelson’s Xanadu the beginning of that decade featured many ideas that turned into the web.
What Berners-Lee did uniquely was cut scope. Focus. Build the single smallest possible thing that people could understand.
Documents were familiar enough; word processors had been around for decades already, paper documents for centuries before. Links were increasingly common, though often in local help documentation and references. Connecting to other computers, even, wasn’t a new concept—it just wasn’t typically done outside academia.
“I would have to sell this project as a documentation system,” realized Tim Berners-Lee, as he wrote in his Weaving the Web book.
Off he went, telling colleague Berne Pollermann who maintained their employer CERN’s internal address book that “the web was just what he needed to make life a great deal simpler.” Instead of getting everyone to update the address book on their computers, Pollermann could use the web to publish an address book anyone could view.
And so it was. “Our first target, humble beginning that it was, would be the CERN telephone book.”
But that meant cutting features yet again. Along with linked documents, Tim Berners-Lee’s web was designed to be editable. Pollermann wouldn’t even have to keep the address book up-to-date; everyone could edit and maintain it together. Editing proved hard to build, though, an obstacle in wider adoption.
“We established that no matter what machine someone was on, he would have access to the Web,” recounted Berners-Lee. And so, the editor was cut. “Simply being able to read the documents was good enough to bootstrap the process.”
We’d have to wait for wikis to bring editing back to the web.
Cutting is part of the process; focus brings products we remember. You only can sell one new thing at a time.
Early word processors were basic. They needed to be essentially digital typewriters. Extra features could come later once people learned the basics. Spreadsheets digitalized existing paper spreadsheet processes.
Email was digital letters. Hotmail was free email in your browser. Gmail was email with more free storage; it had tags too, but you didn’t have to understand them to get Gmail. Each new thing added one major new feature on that which came before.
Google Docs was a word processor, with collaboration in your browser. One new major feature, one core reason to use it over what you’d used before. That was enough to usher in change business software forever.
Wave, on the other hand, tried to do everything, all at once. It wasn’t simply a new email tool or document editor, it tried to rethink how humans work together. That’s too much to take on at once.
“I don’t think they articulated a clear user benefit that was universal to their whole user base,” said Google Docs founder Sam Schillace on why Wave didn’t work. “The combination of something disruptive (so, by definition, hard to understand because it breaks assumptions) without a clearly articulated problem statement, I think was fatal.”
Google Wave did too many things, without a clear reason why all those things went together. It broke norms, showing text while you’re typing instead of after you hit send, and tried to replace email, the oldest active part of the internet.
It was a jack of all trades, master of none. And without a clear reason to live, it was dead on arrival.
“The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect's mind,” write Al Reis and Jack Trout in The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. It’s not just marketing that needs such focus. Products need it first.
Customers need one thing to catch their imagination, one thing that makes them go “Aha!”
The web as it would one day be was too much to introduce in 1990. A shared documentation system or even just a linked contact database was new enough to be existing, focused enough to be understandable. Then came all the extras.
Tim Berners-Lee, along with Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson before, imagined the end game, saw the future, knew the web could be so much more. But it took Tim Berners-Lee’s cutting and refining to make the web something people could understand.
“Determining which features to omit is just as important as—and perhaps more important than—figuring out which ones to include,” wrote professor Stefan Thomke in the Harvard Business Review. It’s hard work, cutting ideas down to their minimum. “Building an app with fewer features is much harder than adding a bunch of settings and letting the user decide,” says iA Writer developer Oliver Reichenstein. But it’s worth it. It’s the only chance you have to sell people on your core idea.
Berners-Lee had learned from his trusty NeXT computer, the machine Steve Jobs commissioned as the next big thing after the Macintosh. “The NeXT interface was beautiful, smooth, and consistent,” gushed Berners-Lee. It had everything: a word processor with links, email, a synthesizer—features far ahead of its time.
“Its failure to take over the industry, despite all these advantages, became for me a cautionary tale,” said Berners-Lee. “NeXT required users to accept all the innovations at once — too much.”
The Web, he determined, would not repeat that mistake. It was change enough; no need to bring everything at once. It’s what Steve Blank of minimum viable product fame would years later call “perfection by subtraction.”
Syncing files between computers wasn’t a new idea when Drew Houston founded Dropbox in 2007. Box, its enterprise competitor, launched two years earlier. Google was already rumored to be building what became Google Drive; Microsoft’s Windows Live Folders (complete with an in-browser Windows desktop) came around the same time. Enterprises had synced files between computers and servers for years.
What Dropbox did was simplify file syncing down to one easy-to-understand feature: Every file you put in one folder will automatically sync with all your devices and colleagues if you want.
Dropbox worked because it was a single feature. There was only one thing to learn, one new concept to wrap your mind around. It taught the world how to sync files, paved the way for native OneDrive and iCloud file syncing in modern devices.
Maybe Steve Jobs was halfway right when he told Houston that Dropbox was “a feature, not a product.” It just turned out, a single feature was all the product needed to be.
Until, that is, it came time to bundle that feature with other features, and make a new single thing from the combination.
The iPhone, today, is everything. Your camera, browser, book, gaming console, notepad, voice recorder, alarm clock. The list goes on. And, occasionally, it’s still your phone.
But when Steve Jobs took the stage in Moscone West to introduce the original iPhone, it was a single device that combined three things, he said.
“An iPod. A phone. And an internet communicator,” repeated Jobs. “Are you getting it?”
The iPhone wasn’t the fully all-in-one device it is today. No copy and paste. No third-party apps. No 3G, even. Instead, it combined two existing, well-defined devices—the phone and the iPod—with a browser. Putting them all in one was the feature that launched the iPhone.
So the original marketing called it a phone, showed people saying Hello? in classic movies, emphasized it as a phone, just newer.
“Jobs aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering, rather than merely ignoring, complexity,” wrote his biographer Walter Isaacson. His team made the iPhone greater than the sum of its parts by making it feel like a unified whole.
Then came 3G. Then the App Store—that was the reason to buy the iPhone. Then Siri. Then increasingly better cameras. Each a singular feature Apple emphasized to let each new iPhone shine with a purpose.
It’s not that your new product can’t do everything. Maybe doing everything is your feature. Notion, for instance, leans again on the 3-things-in-one formula, emphasizing “Notes & docs, Wikis, Projects & tasks” as the three cornerstones of their product. That works when people already understand the core components of your product. The new thing you’re introducing is the remix.
Their competitors paved the way. Evernote among others had popularized team note-taking tools years earlier. Google Docs showed us how to collaborate online. Trello had taught the world how to use Kanban boards. Airtable remixed ideas from Microsoft Access into a modern database. Outline apps taught us how to move list items around; the web had made linking and embeds natural.
Even Notion itself paved the way. “[Version] 1.0 was just notes that you could take and a wiki so that you could collaborate with people,” reminisced Notion COO Akshay Kothari. The bundle with tasks and project came with version 2, “which kind of seemed like an inflection point.”
Notion’s challenge then was the bundle those features together into a single, cohesive whole—and sell us on the bundle being better together. The vision was a product that “brings all your work into one space so you can close all the many apps and tabs you’ve been using, and work alongside your team in the same spot,” said founder Ivan Zhao. That feature is the sum of the bundle.
Perhaps that’s the push and pull between the cycles of bundling and unbundling. “A bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world,” as novelist Salman Rushdie said.
First someone builds a product that’s the best possible version of that thing. Then someone else combines that item with another idea and bundles them together. Better together, they say. Later, odds are someone will build a simpler version of the best parts of that combined item, unbundling and starting the cycle again.
Each time, you get to sell one thing. The feature, or the bundle as the feature.
Find that singular thing, cut and trim until it shines, and then you have something to sell.
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