In a bold challenge to its rivals, Facebook Inc. is launching a new messaging service for its more than half a billion users, setting off a battle that could shape the future of communication on the Internet.
Facebook Messages will meld the three major forms of communication — e-mail, instant messages and text messages — so that users can manage all their communications through a single inbox on their personal computer or mobile device.
The common gateway will be an "@facebook.com" e-mail address.
This kind of unified digital communication is the wave of the future, said Jeremiah Owyang, a social media analyst at Altimeter Group.
If anyone has a legitimate shot at remaking Internet communication, and even eventually replacing e-mail, it's Facebook, analysts say. It has a distinct advantage: It already knows who your friends are and most of them are already on its site. In the process, it would lay claim to one of the Web's largest e-mail services. By way of comparison, Microsoft Corp.'s Hotmail has 361 million global users followed by Yahoo Mail's 273 million users, according to research firm ComScore Inc. Google Inc.'s Gmail has 193 million users,
But big question marks remain. It's unclear how popular the service will be particularly with older users. And more traditional e-mail users will miss some functions such as subject lines, carbon copy and blind carbon copy that are not built into the Facebook service, which is designed to be simple and minimalist.
Facebook seems to be betting on future generations. The first e-mail was sent in the early 1970s, and it looked a lot like e-mail today. And that's the point of the new system, Facebook Inc. founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in unveiling the feature at a news conference in San Francisco. It's time for e-mail to catch up with the way people interact, he said.
"We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail," Zuckerberg said. E-mail is just too slow and clunky for young people who gravitate to real-time, informal communications such as online chat and text messaging, he said.
Young people, in particular, will take to Facebook Messages, which will roll out over the next few months, "like fish to water," Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray said.
Studies bear that out. E-mail remains the primary way adults communicate, but text messaging is more common than any other means of communication for U.S. teens with only 11% of them using e-mail every day, according to a 2009 survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
"Facebook wants to be at the center of most personal communication," Ray said. "It's fine with leaving the boring stuff to Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail. You can get your newsletters or bills over there. But Facebook wants you to come to Facebook for the most meaningful dialogues with your friends."
Zuckerberg said he expected the communications revolution he is trying to incite to take time to catch on.
"This is not an e-mail killer," the 26-year-old chief executive said. "This is a messaging system that includes e-mail as one part of it. We don't expect anyone to wake up tomorrow and say, 'OK, I am going to shut down my Yahoo mail account or Gmail account and switch exclusively to Facebook.'" But, he said, "maybe we can help push the way people do messaging more toward this simple, real time, immediate, personal experience."
The stakes are high: If Facebook succeeds, it will have won another key advantage in the bid for your time, attention and dollars.
Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have been revamping their e-mail services to make them more about interacting with friends wherever they happen to be. Yet Google has struggled in its broader social-networking efforts. Its Google Buzz service built on users' Gmail contacts prompted privacy complaints when Google automatically imported e-mail contacts into Buzz. It is working on adding a social layer to all of its products that it is expected to roll out soon. Yahoo, the most popular U.S. e-mail provider, has also tried to get more social by allowing users to broadcast their status on Facebook and Twitter.
In offering an alternative to these services, Facebook is ramping up pressure on its rivals. More than 350 million of Facebook's more than half a billion users now actively send and receive 4 billion messages every day on the site. Zuckerberg's argument: People will begin to shift to an all-in-one communications service like the one his company is offering. A sign of how important the project was to Facebook: Facebook's director of engineering, Andrew "Boz" Bosworth, said 15 engineers worked on the project for 15 months.
In an interview at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Google CEO Eric Schmidt shrugged off the new entrant in the e-mail melee and rising tensions with Facebook, saying Google is very pleased with the explosive growth of Gmail.
"More competition is always good because competition makes the market larger," Schmidt said.
But technology blogger Robert Scoble said the new Facebook service could threaten Gmail and other e-mail services because they would find it increasingly challenging to attract new users.
"This just makes those other services look old and creaky," Scoble said.
Facebook's current messaging system allows users to interact only with others on Facebook. The new service will let them communicate with any e-mail service. It will also have a "social inbox" that filters messages from people who are not part of a user's social circle on Facebook. Facebook will also show ads in Messages.
But the new service could set off privacy alarm bells: Every conversation will be kept for posterity, unless users delete them. Some also worry that becoming the dominant communications hub would hand too much power to Facebook.
"The notion of letting Facebook essentially capture my identity online is not just disturbing, but dangerous," Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, wrote on Salon.com.
"The company has shown repeatedly that its assurances on privacy are at best treated with skepticism. But that's only part of the issue," he said. "If you let Facebook become the method by which you are known online, you are giving it permission to start charging you for the privilege someday. The only party who should own your identity online is you."