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Pegoraro on Facebook's universal messaging system

By Rob Pegoraro

Facebook isn't just introducing an e-mail service -- it's setting high ambitions.

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

Yes, you can have a 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 told a story about 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 SMS), "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. 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.

By Rob Pegoraro  | November 15, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
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