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Facebook launches universal, 'seamless' messaging service (updated)

By Rob Pegoraro

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

facebook_messaging_icon.png

At an event Monday in San Francisco, founder Mark Zuckerberg introduced a major upgrade to the social network's messaging system, now called just "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 hangups 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 basic 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 roll-out.

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: Post Co. chairman Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook's board of directors. He didn't give me a heads-up on this story, but I'll let that slide.)

I'll update this post once I've had a chance to try out the service. Meanwhile, let me know what you think of it--and what features you'd like me to check out--in the comments.

3 p.m. I've tweaked things above to clarify some details; my first-impressions writeup is after the jump.

facebook_messaging_pr_image.jpg

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. (The screengrab at the left comes from Facebook PR; I elected to use that instead of publicizing who I've had conversations with on Facebook.)

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.)

That friends-list connection also lets Facebook easily provide an option that requires a lot of setup work elsewhere: only letting friends send you mail.

Facebook weaves its own chat fairly tightly into Messages--maybe too well. Clicking on a person's name to open a chat session now yields not just prior chat conversations but e-mails sent back and forth earlier.

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 to 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.

(6:09 p.m. I left out what an e-mail sent from Facebook to a non-member looks like without a set subject. Answer: The site sticks a generic "Conversation with [your name here]" header on it. That's going to get old quickly.)

The popularity of Facebook presents a separate creativity issue: Finding a username 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 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 namespace 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 my two invites out, you'll have to stick with your regular e-mail account to send me your feedback. Or you can just leave a comment below.

By Rob Pegoraro  | November 15, 2010; 1:55 PM ET
Categories:  E-mail, Social media  
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Comments

Isn't gmail already doing a lot of this (merging SMS, chat, email, voicemail, "conversation history") minus the FB interface? It's nothing new at this point, but good add-on for FB users if they want all their content scanned by Zuckerberg & co.

Posted by: alarico | November 15, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

That's what I was thinking alarico, Gmail already does all of that. Not that I'm not equally weirded out by all the information Google knows about me...

Posted by: rrap1 | November 15, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Since the 500 million users they have can't all be 19, are they thinking at all about the 45+ users who may be a little stuck in their ways? I don't want another email client. I like the way it works now just fine. But I doubt that really matters to anyone, least of all FB.

Posted by: tojo45 | November 15, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Can we just incorporate the Donald E. Graham disclaimer in the headline or something? It cracks me up every time the WP does a story on FB, just looking to see how and where in the article it's shoehorned in. For the record, Rob, this one was much better than the one in Sunday's FB re-design article!

Posted by: TheNorthWing | November 15, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Is this new messaging feature on Facebook intended only for profile members, or will businesses with Fan pages be able to use it as well? I know Fan pages finally have a "Search" box feature. Good story. Thanks.

Posted by: editor20 | November 15, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

alarico and rrap1, what's interesting is witnessing how fast Google actually grabs a website's content. A post on Huffpost will usually get you results within minutes on Google when searching your name -- if you use your real name, that is. Perhaps not so quickly with a nickname if at all.

Posted by: editor20 | November 15, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

My how Rob loves his Facebook-flavored Kool-Aid.

Posted by: Dawny_Chambers | November 15, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

@editor20 - yes, google picks up like a hawk on high-traffic blogs, discussion forums, etc. which is why i love my internet anonimity.

@rrap1 - yes of course gmail knows a good chunk of my life-- they just don't have an equally nefarious history of breaching privacy as FB-- well, there's the whole street view mini-scandal, but when you sign up on gmail you don't sign a release saying that all you post there belongs to google.

http://www.facebook.com/terms.php

@tojo 45- there are a lot of people i can no longer reach on email-- they simply don't check or don't reply--i have to look for them on facebook or nowhere at all.

Posted by: alarico | November 15, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

LOL, I've just gone back to talking on the phone. Forget all this email, IM, skype, etc. I'm Facebooked-ed OUT.

Posted by: Libramom | November 15, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

LOL, I've just gone back to talking on the phone. Forget all this email, IM, skype, etc. I'm Facebooked-ed OUT.

Posted by: Libramom | November 15, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Is Facebook really trying to create "one messaging system to rule them all"? I don't know about you all, but I try to avoid sending messages to anyone over Facebook since people take exponentially longer to respond to those messages. E-mail or SMS is so much faster.

In that respect though, e-mail is great as it is. It's there in the morning when you wake up and you can casually browse your messages. SMS is great for short tactical conversations like "where are you" and fun chit-chat. Imagine waking up and having 100 SMS messages in your iPhone.... it would be a nightmare.

We'll see how Facebook messaging pans out... the war between Google and Facebook heats up!

Posted by: mcs37 | November 15, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

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