Facebook is set to announce this morning what many people believe is an email system that might go up against Gmail and other Web mail services. Other folks are not so sure a head-on assault on standard Web mail is a great idea, or even a likely one. In fact, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Robert Scoble that it’s not really email as we think of it, which isn’t surprising. Facebook clearly has the social DNA and the technical chops to add its own wrinkles. Not least, it certainy has the financial resources to do almost whatever it wants–or, perhaps, the financial imperative to fulfill the almost ridiculous expectations by shareholders, even if they are technically private. But we’ll find out shortly.
UPDATE: This is not a new email system per se, though clearly Facebook would like to see it subsume email in coming years–and for that matter, subsume pretty much all your communications (which worries some people). Instead, it’s Facebook’s attempt to 1) help people organize their conversations among various communications systems–email, Facebook messaging, SMS and chat–into single threads; and 2) help people view only messages from close contacts by default, although there will be separate folders for messages from other contacts and for apparent spam. The new messaging system will be by invite-only at first but roll out widely over the next few months.
My quick take before getting a chance to try it out (which I will shortly, thanks to a fast invite from Facebook): This is not a revolutionary product out the gate, and you won’t want to dump your email accounts yet, if ever. Many details remain to be worked out, from how it will work with non-Facebook members to how well it sorts messages in the various ways promised–which is why it’s not rolling out to every Facebook member yet. And like any product offered up by a Web powerhouse, whether it be Facebook or Google, we’ll have to see whether the data and potentially privacy we give up is worth the value. But offering a way to bring together various communications methods in one place–and organize them automatically by conversation thread, as well as by which are likely to be most important to you–seems like a smart move if Facebook can pull it off in a smooth way. That will be the trick.
And we’re underway. “Hey,” Zuckerberg yells to get our attention. He looks and sounds relaxed, talking about Thanksgiving traditions. He says he often asks high school students what email they use. Most say they don’t use email because it’s too slow. I was kind of boggled by this. (OK, this is strange when Mark Zuckerberg is talking like an old Internet guy.) Actually, he says, they think it’s too formal. You have to think of their address, a subject line, an salutation, etc. All this extra stuff that gets attached to an email. It really adds a lot of friction and cognitive load to writing an email.
So instead they use SMS or Facebook (of course). At Facebook, we use email a lot, important way to communicate. So it’s interesting to see how few people see it that way.
So where are we today. We have this messaging system on Facebook–about 350 million people regularly use it. It’s a really simple system. More than 4 billion messages sent every day through the system-the private sharing people do. The vast majority of this is one-to-one messages between people. This 4 billion messages is growing at an incredible rate, much faster than Facebook membership.
We don’t think the modern messaging system is going to be email. Next-generation messaging should be:
So, the three main features of the new Facebook system:
* Seamless messaging: It’s not email. It handles email, but also SMS and other messaging, all in one place.
* Conversation history: You can have the whole conversation history–IMs, emails, messages, etc. all in one stream.
* Social inbox: Because we know who your friends are, we can do some really good filtering for you so you only see messages you really care about. Spam filters are OK at getting rid of the real junk, but it’s hard for an email system to say, This is a person you know, but you don’t really care about that message. Nobody wants to make lists to filter the people you want to get messages from. You can get messages filtered by friends, or friends of friends, or whatever.
Now Andrew “Boz” Bozworth (sorry, not Bozman as I wrote earlier) goes through the product in detail.
On the seamless messaging piece. Planned one year ago when starting to think about this that they’d put together IM and chat and email. Because we have so many ways to communicate, the way we communicate with friends is fragmented. Each person prefers different ways to communicate and we have to keep that in our head. I should only need to know two things: a person and a message.
So we’re giving people a Facebook email address with your Facebook user name–though you don’t have to get it. But this system is definitely not email. We modeled it around chat.
Example: Friend wants to grab lunch. He sends an email. It comes up immediately on a chat window. You send a message back, more like a text message. This will work with Jabber/XMPP, IMAP (at some point), and the Facebook API.
On the conversation history: Many communications messages are in different places–email, chat, Facebook messages, etc. They aren’t available in the same place.
We had to completely rebuild the infrastructure to do this. Moving from Cassandra to hBase, supporting Haystack, as well as Thrift, ZooKeeper, and memcache–OK, I’ll leave the details to the geeker bloggers since I admit this is too far in the weeds for me to explain. Update: Actually, Facebook itself has a fuller explanation.
Now on the social inbox: Now by default, you will see only messages from your friends and friends of friends. If someone like Grandma gets filtered out, you can put her into the core group. Or you can change that folder to friends only. There will also be “Other Messages,” for things that are less immediate but solicited–a folder you can maybe look at once a day. And then a junk folder, of course. (All this so far sounds a little like Google’s recent Priority Inbox.)
So the key here is that the social graph informs the immediacy of the emails they see.
Zuckerberg is back up: We’re really proud of this. Team has been working on this well over a year–15 months. We don’t expect anyone to wake up tomorrow and shut down their Gmail or their Yahoo account and shift to Facebook messaging. Every day, if we do a good job, we expect that more people will IM, message, and email, and … maybe one day, in six months, a year, a year and a half, two years, maybe people will … see that this kind of simple, seamless, personal experience is the way to go. (Certainly until it can operate with other email systems, nobody will be dropping their current email. Email is extraordinarily sticky, for better or worse.)
Will roll it out slowly in coming months. First only by invite.
Now questions from press:
Q: What does the system not do that you want it to do? Zuckerberg: We want to have IMAP support. It should be interoperable with other email systems.
Q: A lot of people have multiple addresses for email, SMS, etc. Zuckerberg: This is one of the complicated things we had to work out. For example, if you have been interacting with someone by email, then we’ll send responses back by email. Or you can specify that you want a particular message to go to their phone. If you get a message and you’re online, you’ll get an IM (vs. an email). Boz: The goal is for this to feel like a conversation. There’s a lot of dials to turn here. We’ll listen to feedback from users. Zuckerberg: We’ve tried to make it so people don’t have to think about this stuff. Don’t want to have the same message in five different channels.
Q: Any plans to add a voice component? Or video? Zuckerberg: Maybe over time. But we thought it was a lot easier to unify these four modes of communication: email, SMS, text messages, and Facebook messages.
Q: Any ads in this product, or targeting using info in messages? Zuckerberg: The advertising works the same way as the rest of Facebook–on the right. But no targeting based on content. But most ads generally are based on info you put into the system, not based on clickstreams etc.
Q: Competition with Google? Zuckerberg: I think Gmail is a great product. Code-name for the Facebook messaging project was Titan. Previous messaging code-name was Gigabox. We’re retiring the Gigabox system within Facebook for Titan. This simple type of messaging is just how people are going to do their communications. Boz: You can send email messages to Gmail using this product.
Q: Can you say in advance you don’t want a conversation saved? Boz: Can delete any conversation (though not in advance). Zuckerberg: People can say, I don’t want this conversation stored. The “off the record” metaphor Google uses didn’t make sense for what we’re doing.
Q: How big a technical challenge was this? Boz: This was definitely a big technical challenge. If we’re doing our job well, to users, it should work along with the things they’re comfortable with, like email or other messaging. Basically, it feels like we’re in a more continuous conversation instead of fragmented.
Q: How will this system allow people to control their social graph, meaning communicate with people who aren’t on Facebook? Boz: Who you communicate with is definitely between you and the person you communicate with. We want to make sure people can communicate with whomever they want to. Zuckerberg: If someone not on Facebook sends you an email on Facebook, then that will show up on the Other Messages folder until (and if) you change that. (This makes me think this new messaging system is a way to get people who aren’t on Facebook to join, not that user growth is yet a problem for Facebook.)
Q: What happens to the corporate email address? Zuckerberg: The Farm Bureau has agreed to give us FB.com. In exchange, we’ve agreed not to sell farm subsidies. So it will be FB.com for Facebook employees after today.
Q: How will I handle the various email accounts I use for business vs. personal or whatever? Boz: The email address portion of this is totally optional. It’s for people who want to connect with people not on Facebook. But Facebook friend can already send you messages, so that won’t change.
Q: Doesn’t having different friend categories in this new system go against the idea of expanding your social network? Boz: Idea of Facebook is not to expand the social network so much as map your existing network. This is really about putting the people you care most about front and center.
Q: Will there be message forwarding? Boz: Yes.
Q: How much storage space? Boz: Not saying yet. For people who try to find the limits, they will find the limits. If you’re using the system as appropriate, you’ll be fine.
And that’s a wrap.