The social network is trying to change the messaging game with its new service
The annals of obsolete communication technologies are growing all the time. There's the telegraph, the answering machine, the fax, and the paper-based letter, all artifacts from an analog era where messages had resonance hours, even days, after getting them.
Now Mark Zuckerberg wants to add e-mail to that list. In a rollout on Nov. 15 of its revamped messaging system, Facebook's 26-year-old founder declared the age of e-mail over, dragged down by what he called the "weight and friction" of having to remember people's addresses and sort through unwanted messages from strangers. In its place, the social network introduced an inbox that stresses instant communication, mashing together e-mail with instant messages and cell phone texts into a single stream of chatter, customized for the Age of Urgency. "This is a modern messaging system," Zuckerberg declared.
The new service, which will be introduced slowly over the next few months to Facebook's 550 million members, treats every message like a five-alarm fire, popping up on the Facebook screen to be read and answered immediately. Members will get a Facebook.com address and the ability to send and receive e-mail, texts, and IMs from the social network to people who do not use it. And Facebook will record all of it, preserving every missive (even the trivial "hang on, BRB") for posterity. "Five years from now, you are going to have the full rich history of all the communication you have with each of your friends and the people around you," Zuckerberg said.
In the runup to the announcement, industry blogs such as TechCrunch called the impending service a "Gmail killer"—another salvo in Facebook's battle against Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), and Yahoo! (YHOO) for the hearts, minds, and attention spans of Internet users. While Facebook messaging will no doubt change people's communication habits, it's premature to say the service means instant death for Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or any other e-mail as we know it. If anything, Facebook hopes it'll be more of a long, slow asphyxiation. Facebook will probably have trouble getting an older generation of e-mail addicts to give up their accounts. Messages from the site are sent out with a member's profile picture, which could look silly if the subject is business related. The service also uses its members' lists of contacts to organize their communications. Messages from friends, and friends of friends, appear in a user's primary inbox. That sounds sensible, though it can be inconvenient. If Uncle Sherman isn't on Facebook—or your boss, or the bank trying to flag you about a suspicious ATM withdrawal—too bad; their messages get tossed in with those from various nonfriends in a folder labeled "other."
Zuckerberg and his colleagues concede that it's unlikely people will abandon their other e-mail accounts. They're betting on the next generation—young people already addicted to real-time texts and IMs, who have already largely written off e-mail. "Facebook is making communication between close friends the priority," says Charlene Li, an analyst at the Altimiter Group, a tech consulting firm.
Facebook's rivals are also racing to build simpler, real-time communication systems. Google has long allowed users to see instant messages and texts alongside Gmail, and recently added a feature called Priority Inbox, which tries to gauge a user's most important conversations and bring them to the top of the pile. Former market-share leader AOL (AOL), now the fifth-largest e-mail provider on the Web, according to ComScore, previewed changes earlier this month that also will integrate texts and IMs, and lets users see images, maps, and other attachments contained in a message in a panel on the side of the screen. Those services are more open than Facebook; for example, their users can link them to corporate mail services like Microsoft Exchange. Facebook isn't there yet.
One looming challenge for the social network is spam. Those hundreds of millions of new e-mail addresses, which are based on people's public Facebook IDs, could be easily harvested by spammers. Facebook's system is designed to handle this, since only messages from friends go into the main inbox, and the company has signed a multiyear contract with anti-spam specialist Cloudmark, say two people familiar with the arrangement. Still, users can expect plenty of junk in those "other" folders. It would be ironic, of course, if e-mail's oldest scourge ended up adding Facebook's newest feature to the list of endangered communications.
The bottom line: Facebook's hybrid of e-mail, texting, and instant messages is a bet on younger users addicted to real-time communication.
Stone is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.