With 'Messages,' Facebook tries to run the switchboard

Nov. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Lou Kerner, a social-media analyst at Wedbush Securities Inc., discusses the possibility Facebook Inc. may introduce an e-mail service. Facebook is the world's largest social-networking site. Kerner speaks with Erik Schatzker on Bloomberg Television's "InsideTrack." (Source: Bloomberg)
By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 7:31 PM

Facebook isn't just introducing an e-mail service - it's setting its ambitions a lot higher than that.

At an event Monday in San Francisco, founder Mark Zuckerberg introduced a major upgrade to the social network's messaging system, now called "Messages," that's designed to fold in other, older forms of electronic text communication: chat, e-mail and SMS.

Yes, you can have a facebook.com e-mail address, based on the username you choose for your profile on the site. But the idea is not just to give you yet another e-mail account, but to unify the ways you can converse with other Facebook users and flatten some perceived hang-ups with e-mail.

To explain that, Zuckerberg related how a group of high school students told him that "we don't really use e-mail." Why? "It's too slow," he quoted them as saying. It didn't have the seamless back-and-forth and near-instant delivery of text messaging.

"We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail," Zuckerberg said. The Palo Alto, Calif., company's new messaging system was built around three features. A company blog post explains each: "Seamless Messaging" (meaning a unified view of your e-mail, Facebook messages and texts), "Conversation History" (allowing you to trace a lifelong conversation across those different channels) and "Social Inbox" (using Facebook's knowledge of who your friends are to filter your incoming traffic).

The idea is that Facebook will act as a switchboard, routing incoming and outgoing messages - it already knows your other e-mail addresses and your mobile phone number as well as the corresponding contact info for your friends. It's promising access via the IMAP standard, which would let you download your messages in any e-mail program. But for now it's a feature that mainly lives on Facebook's own site and its mobile applications, if you've been invited to try it at the start of what Facebook says will be a slow rollout.

Zuckerberg suggested the site wasn't out to replace e-mail, noting that in a year or two, at best, some Facebook users would decide that "maybe e-mail isn't as important as it was before."

But as somebody who's been using e-mail since 1994, I can't take this move lightly. In suggesting that its 500 million-plus users (about 350 million of whom use its existing messaging system) centralize their online correspondence through its own service, Facebook would inevitably displace one of the oldest standards on the Internet. (Disclosure: Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.)

My first take on the new uber-messaging system is that, inside Facebook, it looks much like the old one: a list of messages grouped into threads based on who started them. And, as before, there's no support for importing or merging messages from other mail accounts. Most other Web-mail services offer such a feature - AOL's, just relaunched as an invitation-only beta, has presets for pulling in e-mail from Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail accounts - but Facebook leaves that out.

The new messaging system looks most promising in its ability to integrate your friends list. Where other e-mail services have to guess which messages deserve priority, Facebook knows - in theory - who you want to hear from most. (In practice, the large number of casual acquaintances on many Facebook friends lists may prevent this from working well.)

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