Facebook messaging – Should Google be worried?

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 is dead

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?

  • It’s too formal: all these greeting, sign-offs, signatures. Such waste.
  • It’s private: One-on-one communication has ceased to make sense. We live in social times. We want to share. Yes, users need the ability to  continue private conversations, but these are becoming the exception, not the norm. Why use a tool that requires the user to opt-out if they wish to share?
  • It’s jumbled by default: Why doesn’t my email know who’s sending me something? Look in your Facebook inbox, now at your Gmail. Now back to Facebook. Bet you 9 out of 10 of your Gmail messages are marketing related spam. Facebook differs by requring senders to need an existing relationship with the receiver. This means spam just doesn’t occur. Google knows this, that’s why they released the priority inbox. Did this fix the problem? Well sorta; but in reality it’s just filtering, not evolution.

Why this time is going to be different

Facebook wants it all.

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.

What’s in it for Facebook?

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.

Facebookshare of wallet sits at almost 10% of total time spent online

Bigger than just advertising

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.

Will it work?

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.

3 Responses to “Facebook messaging – Should Google be worried?”
  1. at work says:

    Steve this and a bunch of other factors are slowly enticing me back to reactivate my facebook a/c from about 3 years ago.
    This time around though I’ll be making sure I leave out my full name, high school, and picture as I don’t want all sorts contacting me and asking the dreaded “what have you been up to?”
    Also I don’t feel comfortable with info that potential employers would be able to find easily.
    Although in the case of email I love some good “reply all” banter that can go on between a group of you. And while your doing that at work, it at least looks like your doing work if your pumping out emails.

    • longstraws says:

      The privacy implications of the social web is a whole different blog post! I’m starting to see a lot of friends breaching facebook rules, and opening multiple account. One with their real contact details for family, colleagues and not-really-friends and another for their actual mates.

      Personally, I definitely put way to much up online. It hasn’t come back to bite me yet, but really it’s just a matter of time.

      It’s a brave new world out there.

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