Facebook messaging: improved integration with existing email is welcome, but it will not replace it

Facebook have recently quietly announced that they would be rolling out their much-talked-about new messaging system to most users over the next few weeks. The excitement about the new feature has largely died down since it was announced on November 15 last year, but as people start using it more extensively, it will be interesting to see how it fares.

A grandiose new 'presence Management' system?

It's worth remembering that in Facebook's eyes, the new system is emphatically not email, but rather what Gigaom's David Card called 'Presence Management, or 'the tools and platforms a person uses to announce his availability to other people (and, potentially, to bot and services'). So the New York Times is probably missing the boat when it describes Facebook Messages as 'taking on' the email leaders: what the insatiably imaginative Mr Zuckerberg actually has in mind, quite obviously, is not to challenge industry leaders on their own, rather well-trodden turf of providing traditional, sender-to-recipient email—something they have been doing, with relative degrees of success, for many years with mixed results.

The last really defining event in the history of email was the emergence of Gmail, which occurred seven years ago and currently reigns supreme over webmail: its users, unsurprisingly are younger and richer than the traditional providers'; last year Rescue Time demonstrated that Google Gmail and Docs have been destroying Outlook's market share, which is ore worrying for its competitors since the enterprise market is where the main source of revenue in this segment lies [i]. The state of mind that this brings to mind was perhaps best captured by the recent Onion highly satirical headline, Gmail User Pities Hotmail User. Does this mean that, given Facebook's savviness, Gmail will join the actors playing in the email industry?

The answer has to be 'no', for the time being. In the short to medium term, the existing players will be protected by the triviously obvious fact that people who have signed up for a webmail address are help captive by their provider, owing to the fact that they don't control the domain name that is associated with their email address. This is the main reason in favour of using your own domain as your email address: I know that if, for any reason, I one day want to stop using Google for my email, I can walk away with my donaldjenkins.com address and, hopefully, the data currently stored on Google's mail servers.

In the medium term, the outlook is more uncertain, because of what some observers claim is a change in users' requirements for which traditional providers have proved unable to provide, i.e. the need to rapidly access the most relevant information. Om Malik perhaps set this out most clearly, four years ago,when he called for the emergence of a true smart box, something that Gmail have tried to adapt to with their priority inbox feature. When this leaunched towards the middle of last year, commenters were excitedly claiming that 'email would longer be the same.' Yet the need to filter one's email is not a new issue: it's existed ever since email went mainstream, with the need to deal with spam, and that's a, inevitable consequence of the venerable SMTP protocol, which was launched in 1982, was never designed as a mass-market tool and thus lacks any inbuilt security feature designed to guarantee sender authenticity [ii]. The issue, according to Mr Malik, is broader:

One of the reasons why Yahoo and Google Mail have struggled to become entirely social is because it is hard to graft a social hierarchy on top of tools of communication. If you look at Gmail – it has most of the elements that are available in the new social inbox, but they are all discrete elements and give the appearance of many different silos, being cobbled together.

Facebook did the exact opposite – it imagined email only as a subset of what is in reality communication. SMS, Chat, Facebook messages, status updates and email is how Zuckerberg sees the world. With the address book under its control, Facebook is now looking to become the “interaction hub” of our post-broadband, always-on lives. Having trained nearly 350 million people to use its stream-based, simple inbox, Facebook has reinvented the “communication” experience.

(Meet the New Facebook, Gigaom, November 15, 2010)

Facebook Messages does bring several small improvements, especially better integration with your existing email—but not any reason to replace it

My inbox was upgraded, a few weeks after the launch, and I've been testing the service since. My Facebook inbox has been turned into a hub where my Facebook instant messages (of which, not being a teenager, I do not get very many) and the new possibility of sending and receiving traditional email. In addition to this, and more helpfully, notifications sent by Facebook to the email address associated with my Facebook account now offer:

  • the possibility of replying to the Facebook message directly from my email account, saving me the need to log into Facebook just for the purpose of replying to a message that, for some reason, someone chose to send to me on Facebook rather than my email address (I only add people I know personally to Facebook, which be definition means all my Facebook connections know my email address);
Facebook messaging is now better integrated with your email
Facebook messaging is now better integrated with your email client: you can reply to messages you receive directly from the notification sent to you by Facebook, within your email client of choice.
  • a rather well-designed list of all recent messages between me and the sender, giving a welcome opportunity to put the message back in context immediately.
Improved display of conversation threads
Improved display of conversation threads: you can now view your recent Facebook conversation thread dirctely in the notication email sent to you by Facebook.

If you use a modern, lightweight email client such as Sparrow, dealing with Facebook messages, which previously was a chore, becomes painless.

Looking at the Facebook message interface inside your profile, the most useful new feature is that they've integrated chats and messages, to the extent that when you and your correspondent are connected together, you can use either the chat or the message interface to send and receive messages: in effect, the distinction has been abolished, although a green or moon icon will display next to the name to indicate your correspondent is online or idle.

Facebook chats and messages are now seamlessly integrated
Facebook chats and messages are now seamlessly integrated: you can use either interface for communication with your Facebook connections, regardless of their online status.

As a logical and also welcome consequence, all your previous chat conversations, which you previously had no way of accessing once a chat session had ended, are now included in your message history (and the feature has been applied retroactively to all your existing stock of chat conversations: all my chat conversations since I joined Facebook in 2007 are now in my repository of old messages). Conversations you thought were instant will now be recorded for all posterity without there being any way of deleting them, as far as I could tell. This is both a welcome and an unwelcome development: some of those memories will make amusing reading reading for many years; others might feel uncomfortable at the privacy implications).

Facebook conversation history
Facebook conversation history now includes all your messages and chats, ever since you signed up.

As it stands at present, I think the new messaging system is a welcome improvement, since it can now be made a part of my existing email without adding an extra layer to my communications system. Whether it can actually make to replacing people's existing messaging solutions is another matter. As Facebook Messages stand at present, my opinion is 'no', for at least four reasons:

  1. Facebook currently doesn't offer features people have come to take for granted on other systems, such as the ability to forward messages;
  2. there is no way to access your Facebook messages via a mail client by IMAP or POP, which brings it back to the state of 'old' webmail clients such as Hotmail and AOL in the days in the 1990s when they were still trying to lock users into 'portals': what this means in practice is that while you can reply to a Facebook message from you email client on your desktop, you can't send a new one from there;
  3. when sending or receving messages as ordinary email rather than between Facebook accounts, delivery inexplicably seems to take about thirty minutes, which is plainly unacceptable if you want to use Facebook as your primary email system;
  4. most crucially, perhaps, you can't map your Facebook account to your own email address: your me@facebook.com address necessarily matches the slug linked to your Facebook account.

Possible privacy issues?

All this isn't necessarily an issue for those who don't need the new features and can't envisage a world in which Facebook might cease to exist, become 'evil' or circumstances in which they might want to leave Facebook, losing their stock of messages and their email address. There are also—surprise, surprise, for those familiar with Facebook's track record in the matter, obvious privacy implications to the fact that your Facebook email address can be automatically deduced from your profile slug, which is public—meaning anyone can send you email messages without your having given them your address. It's not obvious how Facebook will handle this issue when it starts causing problems (which it inevitably will if the service takes off): you can turn off the ability for people who aren't on your friend list to send you messages in the privacy settings, but it's hard to see how this can be done for email set to your me@facebook.com address,since you can't know in advance who's going to spam or stalk you.

For all these reasons, I don't feel Facebook email will be a threat at all to existing email providers, except for the specific demographic whose needs it meets perfectly—a closed, non standards-compliant system for adolescents without any need for normal email accounts. On the other hand, the improved features compared with the previous messaging interface and, above all, the better integration with users' external email systems, which I believe most of them will not want to give up, are welcome for the extra convenience they provide.

Nice, but hardly revolutionary.

  1. Another recent survey showed that Google's mail solutions had captured less than 1 per cent of the enterprise email market, with between one and two million users paying for its Premier version of Google Docs.
  2. Tools already exist to make email more secure: the most widely used are Sender Policy Framework and DomainKeys Identified Mail, both of which can be deployed on mail servers hosted at Google.