Facebook takes on email

Reporting from the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco.

Project Titan is a secret no longer.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Monday that the company will begin rolling out a “modern messaging system,” a tightly-integrated experience that will enable users to manage their e-mail directly from Facebook.com.

Zuckerberg was clear that e-mail is only a part of the new offering, however.

Young people find email ‘too slow’

“We don’t think that a modern messaging system is going to be email,” he said.  Facebook’s existing messaging system already delivers four billion messages per day, Zuckerberg said, with young people finding email “too slow”.

Facebook Mail had been seen as a threat to Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail, also coinciding with a revamped email offering from AOL called Project Phoenix.

Zuckerberg denied that Facebook is declaring war on email, despite the fact that users will soon have the option to create “@facebook.com” addresses:  “This is not an email killer,” he said. “This is a messaging system that includes email as one part of it. We don’t expect anyone to wake up in the morning and shut down their Gmail or Yahoo account.”

But, he added: “Maybe one day, six months, a year, two years out people will start to say this is how the future should work. Maybe email won’t be as important a part as it was before and we can push people toward real-time conversations,” he said.

The new messaging service blends online chat, text messages and other real-time conversation tools with traditional email. The Facebook blog writes that there are “no subject lines, no cc, no bcc, and you can send a message by hitting the Enter key.”

Facebook says its new mail product has been modelled more closely after chat to “reduce the number of things you need to do to send a message”.

Facebook employees will now use the domain “fb.com” for their work email, a domain acquired from the American Farm Bureau (of all places).

The new platform will support all other major email clients, with the ultimate goal of unifying different modes of modern communication, including IM, SMS, email, and of course Facebook.  Engineer Andrew Bosworth said that the new system makes it easy for people to send and receive across devices.

The Facebook messaging service was intended to turn online exchanges into ongoing conversations as opposed to intermittent back-and-forth email missives, according to Facebook director of engineering Andrew Bosworth.

“It seems like technology should get out of the way, said engineer Andrew Bosworth.  It should be as easy as sending a person a message.”

The Social Inbox

All messages will be archived in one place (Conversation History), and can be sorted based on a variety of social metrics (The Social Inbox). Certain messages, from good friends, your inner circle, will be prioritised.

“It seems wrong that an email message from your best friend gets sandwiched between a bill and a bank statement. It’s not that those other messages aren’t important, but one of them is more meaningful. With new Messages, your Inbox will only contain messages from your friends and their friends. All other messages will go into an ‘Other folder’ where you can look at them separately,” explains the Facebook blog.

Facebook says that if someone you know isn’t on Facebook, that person’s email will initially go into the “Other folder”.

Facebook users can decide whether to get word to friends using SMS, chat, email or a Messages feature at the social networking service.

Messages will be received in whatever medium or on whichever device is convenient.

“You shouldn’t have to remember who prefers IM over email or worry about which technology to use,” said Facebook engineer Joel Seligstein. “Simply choose their name and type a message.”

A junk folder was created for messages people don’t want to see.

“We can change the paradigm to have genuine control over who gets our attention,” Bosworth said. “This is actually something people have wanted for a long time.”

One of the major objectives was to streamline sending and receiving messages with an eye toward simulating an ongoing chat, according to Zuckerberg.

The (inevitable) privacy concerns

Facebook Mail may still give the other clients a run for their money. With a massive user base of over 500 million people, the company is moving into email while Google and Yahoo scramble to make theirs more social.

The new offering has already raised privacy concerns from many observers, who are wary that Facebook will now control even more user data as it works its way more deeply into peoples’ lives.

The company has been treading carefully in recent months, launching enhanced privacy settings after users determined that too much personal information was being revealed by default.  The Facebook team expressed confidence in their existing security features.

Facebook, which has already gobbled up the IM market with Facebook Chat, becomes even more portalised with its latest move.  The company has already passed Google in average time spent on site, and its lead is now likely to increase.

The company will continue to monetise messages in their usual way, which involves targeting ads to products that people have already expressed interest in (Liked, for example).  Facebook will not target ads to the messages themselves.

The new messaging system will be rolled out slowly over the next few months, with the first access being granted via a selective invite system.

Powerful challenge to established players

With such a large user base, a free personalised facebook.com email service lays down a powerful challenge to the established email giants — Microsoft’s Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail and Google’s Gmail.

Hotmail currently has the most users, 361.7 million as of September, according to online tracking firm comScore, followed by Yahoo! with 273.1 million and Gmail with 193.3 million.

Facebook’s new messaging service comes amid a recent bout of sparring with Google over data sharing.

Google earlier this month blocked Facebook from importing Gmail contact information over the Palo Alto, California-based social network’s refusal to reciprocate and share data about its users.

“Facebook says this isn’t a ‘Gmail killer,’ but this is neither completely accurate nor completely wrong,” said Forrester analyst Augie Ray. “Anything that makes communication easier and pulls attention away from Gmail is a ‘Gmail killer.'”

“Don’t think of it as inbox but as a place where you have, store and record your communications with friends,” Ray said.

  • Read the Official Facebook blog post

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