Today’s launch is another round in the protracted conflict between Facebook and Google — following on earlier announcements about Facebook Groups and the deal with Bing.
Facebook Messages is a significant revamp of Facebook’s existing messaging facility. It is being rolled out over the next few months, and is likely to get used by users in communicating with each other inside Facebook, rather than across the Web. Users can optionally get an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) that interoperates with the world outside Facebook, but the features are so limited that users who rely heavily on web-mail from Google, Yahoo or Microsoft are unlikely to switch. Users with lighter-weight requirements will find it fits in naturally with their social interactions on Facebook. I expect Facebook Messages to become an integral part of the average Facebook user’s experience, and to prove successful in meeting its initial project goals.
There was a rumor that, during development, Facebook staff called this a “Gmail killer”. If true, that says more about the intensely competitive culture at Facebook, than it does about the near-term outcome. At the launch, both CEO Mark Zuckerberg and project lead Andrew Bosworth downplayed the notion of killing Gmail, which is a good thing, because it won’t happen soon.
For the power user, Facebook Messages lacks important features such as tagging and a user-defined folder structure. Facebook Messages does have some positive aspects like the social prioritization of content, integration with SMS and chat, real-time presence — in a form that go beyond the current threshold set by Google Mail and Gtalk.
To some observers, the result seemed underwhelming, but then again, we are not the target audience — we being corporate users or power users of personal email. I have 30,000 messages in my Google inbox that I can search in a couple of seconds, and easily create filters, automated tags, and do forwarding — requirements that Facebook Messages will likely not satisfy anytime soon. Instead, the launch of Facebook Messages resembles that of the Apple iPad, which on the day of launch did not impress the pundits, but since then has proven to be a big success with the target market (which in the case of the iPad was not the power user or road warrior with high-function laptop).
The launch stands in contrast with Google Buzz — in which Google extended their email with a social dimension, and thus far has fallen short. Facebook is moving in the converse direction, by extending their social platform with more robust messaging.
Facebook Messages is replacing an existing system that today has 300 million users with 4 billion messages per day, built by an engineering team of only five developers. With this new release, they have tripled the development team size to 15 engineers. They will continue to invest and add to this steadily. With this release, they are not going for the body blow. Instead, Facebook’s approach consists of a rapid drumbeat of small blows aimed at Google and other competitors. No one else seems to be able to iterate as rapidly.
As I’ve stated in the past, the conflict between Facebook and Google is becoming the defining tension that shapes the modern Web — a Web in which Google owns the content-centric portion (the old generation), and Facebook is dominant in the social web (the new generation). All other competitive dynamics (Google vs Microsoft, for example) are secondary. Google can take a breath today, but needs to ramp up its game for the long haul.
Facebook Messages will have zero impact on corporate email, except maybe in the very long-term, because that is not part of the design goal or competitive strategy.
However there is a way in which Facebook mail will impact enterprise email: indirectly, through imitation by corporate email systems. Enterprise systems will adopt some of the features, such as social filtering of messages, chat integration and presence, in the way that enterprise collaboration suites have adopted Facebook-style social networking. These features will become checklist items, that every enterprise system includes. The features are likely to be used more than Facebook-style social profiles, which have had limited adoption, because the email features have a better fit with corporate culture.
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