Five reasons you might choose Facebook Mail over Gmail

Today marks the beginning of a new age — at least that’s what the folks at Facebook’s PR department would like us to believe. The momentous event? Facebook are believed to be launching fully fledged email capabilities for all their users. (Memeburn’s Silicon Valley correspondent Kevin Grant will be live tweeting and writing from the event on this site: 10am San Francisco time; 1:30am Asia-Pacific Time; 8pm Central African Time CAT)

That means all Facebook account holders will soon be able to send and receive emails from their own address. This is a huge leap forward from Facebook’s somewhat primitive private messaging platform, not least because it now allows you to contact someone within Facebook without even logging in to the site (and vice versa).

On the one hand this might not seem very exciting. Email has been around since 1972 — it’s hardly cutting edge. On the other hand any move which creates a unified communication platform for over half a billion people (Facebook has around 550 million users) has to be seen as important.

Codenamed (rather grandly) “Project Titan,” the idea has been in development at Facebook for over a year. The geeks working on the project have very high hopes for their new baby, and the rumour is that they are referring to it as their “Gmail killer”.

That’s a pretty lofty goal, considering how devoted Gmail’s 150+ million users are to Google’s flagship email system. But Project Titan does dangle some intriguing possibilities that even the almighty Google can’t (currently) match.

1. You want social prioritisation for your emails

One of the most frustrating things about email – at least for those who receive a lot of it – is sorting the important messages from the chaff. Even without spam if you get more than 100 emails a day (which is fairly average for many adults), then sorting, ranking and grooming your inbox is a constant chore.

Where Facebook might help is that it inherently understands who is most important in your life, which goes a long way to predicting which emails are going to be the most important. So it will rank emails from your husband high, and emails from your old school boyfriend low – ensuring you get to hubby before you bother with chubby.

You can achieve this already on Gmail with a combination of filters and the “priority inbox” that Google launched in July this year – but it’s a chore and has to be constantly tweaked to take into account shifting real world relationships.

It even beats innovative technologies like Xobni which rank your emails according to the people who email you most frequently. Frequency of communication can give the illusion of importance, but that one email from the hot girl you are courting is a lot more important to you than the jokes your colleague constantly forwards.

2. You like deeper integration with your social calender

Many people already use Facebook as their weekend planner, an integrated email account can only help make this more common. Imagine being able to RSVP to a dinner party by simply replying to an email. No more logging in – just click send and in it’s in your calender. In theory it should even allow you to invite people not already on Facebook and have them RSVP without having to join.

3. You want smart (social) conversations

One of the most frustrating things about email is how poor it is at handling any conversation with more than two people. As soon as you and four of your friends are using it to debate what movie you want to see on Friday, it can quickly become a tangled mess of different side conversations (or “threads”) – one about which movie to see, one about who is paying for the popcorn and one about who’s car you are all using.

What Facebook can do is to automatically tidy up all these threads, for instance by allowing everyone to vote by clicking “like” on the movie choices instead of having to reply. And because Facebook excels at sorting and ranking such multi-thread conversations (just look at their news feed), they should be able to do a much better job than plain old email.

The guys at Google Wave saw this problem clearly, and their (sadly) doomed product was an attempt to fix email by replacing it with something much better. Lars Rasmussen, the legendary engineer who started both Google Maps and Wave has since left Google for… you guessed it, Facebook. I wonder which project he’ll be working on?

4. You like your Facebook username

A lot of what makes an email address useful is how short and easily shareable it is in mediums other than the internet. A lot of people who joined the email revolution late are stuck with those “ or type” addresses. Even worse are the email addresses from companies no-one has heard of. Try getting a call centre agent to spell Zimbra properly.

But Facebook gives many of those people the chance to own Whatever your Facebook username is (aka your vanity URL), that will be the first part of your email address. (If you don’t have one yet, you can set up your URL here)

It may be egotistical or silly, but it’s also practical. People are going to use the email address that is easiest to remember and spell. And if Facebook’s webmail offering is even half decent, they should quickly have millions of avid users.

5. You don’t have an email address (or a computer)

It’s worth remembering that this may be the first email address for many Facebook users who signed up using their mobile phone number. Since a growing proportion of Facebook’s users come from the developing world, this may be their first formal email address.

So a medium that might seem utterly passé to us may be revolutionary to many Africans, Asians, South Americans and other people from less affluent parts of the globe. Brazil already saw this happen with Orkut, still their biggest social networking site. People who had never had email before used Orkut like an email system — even though it’s as primitive as Facebook’s old private messaging system.

Facebook has been steadily gaining ground over Orkut for the past three years, but remains only 25% of its size. Innovations like Fmail may help Facebook speed up it’s conquest of one of the world’s most important emerging markets.

But is it a Gmail killer?

Despite what Facebook’s excited engineers may say, they will need to do a lot of work before they can prove they have a Gmail killer (or even a Hotmail or Yahoo killer) on their hands. People can be very attached to their email addresses, and it can take a lot of convincing to shift them to your platform.

Where they are definitely going to win is in the developing world. Suddenly tens of millions of their customers have an entirely new way to communicate with the outside world, spreading the gospel of Facebook in the footer of every email they send.



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