For the past couple of week the blogosphere has been buzzing with rumors of a Gmail slaying challenger from Mark Zuckerberg and kids at Facebook.
It’s interesting how insular the rumor group-think has become when an product like this is about to be released. Despite the numerous iPhone’s, Google Wave’s, and Palm Pre’s released in recent time, the internet still seems to think about innovation in terms of incremental improvement; not real, cutting edge, game changing stuff. I guess that makes sense, it’s hard to think outside of your current frame of reference. If it was easy we’d all be out there innovating, instead of sitting behind WordPress attempting to work out Facebook’s next move.
And then Facebook Messaging was announced. While we were speculating on Zuckerberg’s entrance into the web mail game. Mark had a team of 15 hidden away in Palo Alto, “wired in”, producing not an incremental improvement to the incumbent offering, but something relevant, interesting, different!
Email was the ‘killer app’ of ARPANET, back in 1982, but that was more than a little while ago. Since then, the pace of innovation hasn’t just crawled, it’s stalled. I’ve discussed this previously, while the web has been allowed to mature and evolve, email has remained a strange relic of a bygone era.
So what’s wrong with it?
Facebook is seeking to displace email with what it calls a “modern messaging system”. The concept revolves around the idea that people now work and communicate in more social ways; I might email friends at work, SMS them when we’re out at a bar, and the Facebook chat with them when I get home, but the flow of conversation is lost through the multi-channel online experience. Facebook messaging hopes to unify this experience by collating all these different ways we converse into a single place.
It does away with the headers, the subjects, CC’s and BCC’s and takes conversations back to the basics.
“This is not an email killer,” Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg told reporters and analysts at the launch event.
“Maybe we can help push the way people do messaging more towards this simple, real time, immediate personal experience. Email is still really important to a lot of people. We think this simple messaging is how people will shift their communication,” added Mr Zuckerberg.
With half-a-billion users willingly contributing deep, personal information, Facebook are already able to deliver better ad targeting than Google has managed to achieve, in a much shorter time. Now, imagine what they could do by combining current customer understanding with an analytic engine that could read and interpret interpersonal conversation. Relevant targeted offers could be delivered on the spot. SMS’s between friend like “hey where do you want to go for dinner?” could be matched against most recent Facebook Places check-in to recommend sponsored listing.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I believe Facebook is going after a much bigger prize.
As of June 2010 , social media access represented 13.5% of the total share of time spent online. Incredible, considering how recently this has been an online channel. But continuing this growth with the current service offering is hard. So they’re looking outside of established markets, and at things like games (Zynga), search, photos and now messaging.
They have seen the success Apple achieved with the walled garden and are attempting to position themselves as the ‘net inside the internet. By providing the single platform for the majority of their customers online servicing, Facebook can fight the risk of defection to the next “new big thing”, turn Facebook into the world’s homepage and position themselves as the premier advertising platform.
Email is entrenched in our daily activity online. It’s always been there. Zuckerberg could have comfortably delivered a Gmail replacement with a similar sit of the current features and functionality, but there’s not a lot of point putting lipstick on a pig. Instead, he’s opted to disrupt the industry, to change things.
Facebook’s size and scale has previously provided it the opportunity to enter established markets and dethrone the king almost overnight. Remember that MSN Messenger of AIM account you held a few years back? Do you still use it now? Or have you switched to the – arguably less usable – Facebook chat alternative?
Why the appeal? Barriers to use drop immediately when you put facebook.com in the address bar. Once your logged into the platform everything is accessible and available. Why would you bother accessing an external service if the one your preferred platform for other services offerings performs the same job even 70% as well.
The way we communicate has already started to change. I’ve previously written about the benefits of microblogging in the corporate realm, Twitter is moving from strength to strength, and Google has been dipping it’s toes in the water with attempts like Google Wave. If Facebook is to survive the next stage of online revolution they need to consolidate a greater range of offers into one platform that can do everything.
If they get Facebook Messaging right, this might just be the first step towards that happening.