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With 'Messages,' Facebook tries to run the switchboard

To do the same with texting, however, requires using Facebook as a front end for your carrier's texting service. If you want to text using your phone's regular SMS function but have Messages incorporate that into your ongoing conversation with a friend, you have to relay the message through Facebook using a special syntax.

Compared with most new mail programs, Messages looks weak. You can't flag messages for follow-up or file them in separate folders; like Gmail in its earliest state, Messages only lets you search through them, mark them as read or unread, and archive them out of sight. It displays attached Microsoft Office files through Microsoft's new, free Web-based Office apps, but an attempt to read one Word document yielded a useless error message blaming an "unexpected error."

The lack of subject lines - what Zuckerberg termed a feature - really kills me. Like a lot of journalists, I take great professional pride in writing clever headlines, and the subject line of an e-mail message is a terrific outlet for that sort of compressed prose. Now Facebook wants to abolish that altogether? No, thank you.

The popularity of Facebook presents a separate creativity issue: Finding a user name that looks professional and identifies you as yourself to the shrinking majority of Internet users not on the site. Internet users of a certain age: Remember trying to come up with a smart-looking screen name on AOL shorter than 10 characters? Facebook doesn't have that strict character count, but it does have far more people competing in its name space than AOL ever did.

I don't see Messages getting anywhere among intensive e-mail users, the kind who have stored messages from multiple old accounts saved in one program. But I do see this hammering another nail into the coffin of the limited, non-portable mail accounts parceled out by most consumer Internet providers.

Or, at least, Messages will when it's more widely available. For now, it's invite-only - and each person invited to try it only has a limited number of invitations to share. As I have already sent out my two invites, you'll have to stick with your regular e-mail account to send me your feedback.

Living with technology, or trying to? Read more at voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.


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