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Facebook’s New Messaging Service: Please Don’t Call It E-Mail!

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For months, there have been rumors that Facebook was working on turning the inboxes of its 500 million-plus users into a full-blown e-mail service. Today, Facebook founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg formally unveiled the subject of the rumors–code-named “Titan” and officially named simply “Facebook Messages”–at an event in San Francisco. And he spent much of his time stressing that whatever this new thing is, it’s not e-mail. (More on Time.com: Why Facebook Deals is Bad News for Foursquare)

Instead, it’s a massive update to Facebook’s current messaging system, chat feature, text-messaging integration, and smartphone applications that mashes up all sorts of communications (including e-mail) into one unified stream. Zuckerberg and Facebook engineering honcho Andrew Bosworth mostly talked about the service rather than demoing it, but they said that it’ll include features such as these:

  • Every Facebook user will get an e-mail address: If your Facebook profile is located at facebook.com/yournamehere, your e-mail address will be yournamehere@facebook.com.
  • If you’re logged into Facebook, incoming e-mail will show up in the service’s chat service; reply to a message, and it’ll be sent as an e-mail.
  • Similarly, the Facebook iPhone app will notify you of e-mail and let you receive and send messages. (An Android version will come along later.)
  • In a feature that sounds a little like Google’s Priority Inbox, you can organize the people you receive messages from into important folks (friends and family), others who aren’t so vital (your credit card company, say), and Junk. The goal is let you see stuff you really want to see immediately, allow you to check in on less urgent messages once a day, and ignore spam.
  • You can also choose to have messages from people not on your Facebook friends list bounced, period.
  • Like e-mail, Facebook messages will be able to include file attachments; a deal with Microsoft will let you edit documents using the Office Web Apps online suite.
  • The service will go beyond threaded-message interfaces such as Gmail’s Conversations by letting you scroll back through all the communications you’ve had with a particular person via Facebook, all in one place. (You’ll be able to opt out of this–or skip all the new features, period–but that presumably won’t be enough to satisfy every privacy watchdog out there. In fact, I can hear them growling from here.)

Zuck and Bosworth explained that all this is in part a reaction to the needs of folks younger than themselves–Facebook-and-text-message-loving high schoolers who find e-mail too slow and too isolated from the rest of their communications. They seemed awfully confident that they’ve come up with something better than e-mail, in a way that left me flashing back to last year’s launch of Google’s spectacularly unsuccessful Wave. But while Wave suffered from having far too many features, Zuck says part of the goal with this new messaging service is to have fewer features than e-mail. And from what we saw this morning, it does indeed seem to have a minimalist, IM-like feel. (More on Time.com: AOL’s Project Phoenix: E-mail Is Innovative Again)

Three hundred and fifty million of Facebook’s half-a-billion-plus members are active users of its messaging tools in their current form, and the service delivers four billion private messages a day. The company isn’t going to spring all these new features on everybody all at once: Instead, it’ll roll them out gradually over the next few months. Only a few folks will get them starting today.

In the end, all this sounds like…well, like another attempt to improve e-mail. And even though e-mail is rife with weaknesses, it keeps on keeping on even while supposedly better alternatives crash and burn.

The good news is every aspect of Facebook is subject to continuous revision; if you don’t like this service in its initial form, just wait. Unlike Wave, which was an all-new effort, this is an upgrade to Facebook’s existing messaging features, so it’ll surely be around for the long haul.

More on Time.com:

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