On Monday morning in San Francisco, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled what may be the company’s most ambitious technical project yet: An integration of Facebook’s internal messaging system with its users’ personal e-mail accounts. Facebook customers will now be able to get an e-mail address of the form “email@example.com,” but the system will also work with whatever e-mail service they already use.
Facebook isn’t pitching this as an alternative to Web-based e-mail like Yahoo Mail, MSN Hotmail, and Google’s Gmail. “We don’t expect anyone to wake up tomorrow and say I’m going to shut down my Yahoo account and switch exclusively to Facebook,” Zuckerberg told the assembled audience in San Francisco. Instead, it’s a way to add e-mail as yet another way for Facebook users to connect and converse with others, including those who aren’t on Facebook.
Rather than trying to steal customers away from Yahoo, Facebook is trying to bring those customers’ existing e-mail accounts into its ever-spreading reach. (Already, according to Nielsen, U.S. Facebook users spend 15 minutes per day on the site.) Should Google launch its rumored social network in the next few months, Facebook users will have less reason to switch to another network simply because it’s integrated with Gmail.
Facebook’s mail service isn’t live yet, but Zuckerberg detailed some of its main features: It will work with desktop and cell-phone e-mail clients via the POP protocol.
It will track conversation histories with other people, so you can quickly see all e-mail threads between yourself and another person. It will integrate internal Facebook messages and external e-mail into one in-box. It will use members’ friend networks to help prioritize messages and filter spam. Facebook’s iPhone app will support it, but it will also work over SMS text messaging. There will be privacy settings to control who can e-mail you.
There are no e-mail subject lines. Instead, the interface looks like chat, where you can view your entire history of messages back and forth with another person. There’s no support yet for the IMAP e-mail protocol, generally considered more robust and flexible than POP. But that may be coming.
This morning’s presentation didn’t cover advertising, but it’s obvious that by bringing its members’ external e-mail into a Facebook interface, the company is setting up a huge and highly targetable new area for advertisers. Facebook e-mail users will spend even more time on Facebook than they already do, and load more pages—pages they previously would have loaded on another e-mail site. It looks like Facebook’s system will take ad revenue away from Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google. Webmail is a big source of traffic for those companies; the analyst firm comScore says Hotmail has 361 million users worldwide, while Yahoo has 273 million and Gmail has 193 million.
Tech industry professionals were amused when Zuckerberg told them that the e-mail integration project was Facebook’s largest software development effort yet, with all of 15 engineers working on it. By contrast, Microsoft employs hundreds of developers for its Internet Explorer browser. The small size of the team is perhaps the most significant demonstration yet of how Internet-based software development has been streamlined by platforms, standards, and APIs—application programming interfaces that let engineers hook systems from different makers together—to the point where 15 coders can link Facebook with most present and future e-mail services on the planet.
What happens now? Two words: Privacy scare. Security and privacy advocates are already poring over Zuckerberg’s words to find ways that the as-yet-unseen mail system might compromise its users. But from past experience, security holes are unlikely to slow the Facebook juggernaut. “The only fatal shortcoming would be a very serious breach of privacy that would scare anyone from using it,” Bernardo Huberman, director of Hewlett-Packard’s Social Computing Lab recently told Technology Review. So far, though, it seems Facebook users mostly choose to complain bitterly about Zuckerberg’s privacy goofs while using his site nonstop.