SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook is betting that one day soon, we'll all be acting like young students — more texting and instant-messaging, at the expense of e-mail.
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Facebook unveiled a new messaging system Monday, and while CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn't go as far as declaring e-mail dead, he clearly sees the four-decade-old technology being eclipsed by more real-time ways of communicating.
"We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail," Zuckerberg said.
Right now, Facebook's Messages section is a lot like an e-mail inbox. The overhauled version, which will be rolled out to users by invitation in coming months, brings in cell phone texts, IM chats and e-mails from non-Facebook accounts.
All the messages stack up in one inbox, and they're organized by the
person sending them rather than the type of technology they use. For
those who want one, Facebook will hand out facebook.com e-mail addresses
— mostly to make it easier to communicate with people who aren't on
"If we do a good job, some people will say this is the way that the future will work," Zuckerberg said.
By making e-mail part of its communications hub, Facebook escalates its
duel with Internet search leader Google Inc., which shook up online
communications 6½ years ago with its Gmail service. Google has said it
will roll out more social networking features to counter Facebook's
growing popularity, and within Gmail it already lets people chat, e-mail
and make phone calls.
What Facebook has that Gmail and others don't have, however, is people's
real identities, plus a map of their real-life relationships and online
interactions — something Facebook likes to refer to as the "social
Facebook will use what it knows of these relationships to build a social
inbox that not only filters out spam but messages it deems less
important from strangers or overly chatty friends, and impersonal
messages such as the phone bill. Those lower-priority messages will be
tossed in a separate folder labeled "Other." Users can also tell
Facebook to automatically block messages that don't come from friends.
To communicate with a friend, a Facebook user would click on the
friend's name rather than hunt for a phone number or an e-mail address.
If that friend prefers to get text messages, that's how the message will
be seen. If the friend likes e-mail, e-mail it will be.
The messaging system, however, isn't e-mail. It doesn't use subject lines or "Cc" fields.
Facebook says it will store every missive sent between two people for
eternity, unless they choose to delete it; the company likens it to this
generation's equivalent of a box filled with years of love letters.
Zuckerberg dismissed notions that the Facebook service, code-named
"Project Titan," is a "Gmail killer," as portrayed in the media. At the
same time, he said he thinks more people will forgo lengthy e-mail
conversations in favor of shorter, more immediate chats.
That could lessen the need for people to use communications tools other than Facebook, said Altimeter Group analyst Charlene Li.
"It may not be a Gmail killer, but it could be nibbler," she predicted.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt welcomed Facebook's expanded role in online
communications. "More competition is always good because competition
makes the market larger," Schmidt said in a meeting with reporters at
the Web 2.0 technology summit. "We are all well served by having
Facebook sees its messaging service as a way to deepen its connection
with the more than 500 million users of its network. If it can persuade
its vast audience to become faithful users of its e-mail service,
Facebook conceivably will have more opportunities to sell advertising
that caters to their likes and dislikes.
That ambition also could heighten the privacy issues surrounding
Facebook as it becomes more deeply ingrained in people's lives and its
computers become a treasure trove of personal information.
Privacy, to be sure, has been a thorn in 6-year-old Facebook's side since it was born in Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room.
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a
privacy watchdog group, called Facebook's move into e-mail "deeply
disturbing." He said that under the guise of giving users a new utility,
the company "opens up another door that allows it to closely track how
their members communicate."
Privacy concerns aside, Wedbush Morgan analyst Lou Kerner, who follows
social media, sees the feature expanding the site's appeal.
"It's going to bring some of the remaining holdouts to the Facebook platform," Kerner said.
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