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Facebook Messages – the new way or no way?

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Facebook Messages was launched last night to a wave of hype about the new “Gmail killer””. Based entirely on the fact that Facebook has half a billion users of its social network, the assumption is that it will kill off Gmail and all other e-mail providers. But, cautions ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, this is still a deeply flawed service.

To say Facebook is big is like saying an atom is small. It is as big as things get in the world of online services. But to say its size means it will rule any space it enters is hardly as self-evident.

With the launch of Facebook Messages on 15 November, even seasoned journalists were describing it as the Gmail killer or using words to similar effect. Before unpacking that claim, let’s unpack Facebook Messages.

As Facebook puts it, “”With the new Messages, now you have easy access to all your private conversations with your friends in one place. The new Messages interface not only displays the Facebook messages you exchange with friends, but it also interweaves your chats, texts and emails (should you choose to create an @facebook.com address). It’s a central place to control all of your private communication, both on and off Facebook.””

That’s all good, but Facebook has its own definition of “”easy access”” and “”control””. For example, you don’t get to create folders to manage your e-mail. Your messages are all lumped together, and not in date order eigher: it is displayed according to how close you are to the sender, based on what the system sees as your interaction with the sender.

Facebook’s evangelists will argue that “”managing”” e-mail is very 2009 and not the way the youth uses messaging. Facebook’s evangelists will be missing the fact that there are now more Facebook users older than 25 than younger. They will also be missing the fact that, for those who do use e-mail in the “”old”” way, managing that e-mail is a major issue in their lives. Facebook reduces rather than enahnces the ability to manage it by lumping it all together, and not enabling prioritisation based on how long ago a message was received, nor on the subject matter.

“”Messages are grouped into one ongoing conversation with each friend or group of friends, not by date or subject line. Thanks to smart filtering, you’ll always see messages from your friends, and friends of friends, first.””

All messages are grouped under one of three categories: Friends, Other and Spam.

“”Your Other folder contains messages sent to mailing lists and broad distribution groups, along with messages from people who aren’t friends or friends of friends. If you see a message in Other that you’d like to move to your main messages view, simply open the message and select ‘Move to Messages’ from the Actions drop-down menu. If you ever want to move a message from your main messages view to your Other folder, your Actions menu will feature a ‘Move to Other’ option.””

If you want truly smart filtering, that allows you to separate out, for example, work mail, family-related messages or mail from professional contacts. Well, didn’t you know this is a SOCIAL network?

This immediately underlines the fact that Facebook is not intended to replace any form of business-oriented e-mail system, and pulls a good few teeth out of its threat to Gmail.

Let’s look at the “”key features””:

* Faster interaction: If you want, you can send messages just by hitting your Enter key, so the new Messages is as fast (and as informal) as an in-person conversation.

* Integrated communication: No matter what you’re using to communicate (Facebook, mobile or email), your conversation streams quickly and seamlessly into one place.

* Smart filtering: You’ll always see what’s important to you first ‚ messages from the people you’re close to take precedence over mailing lists.

* Revamped search: Search for either the person you were talking with or what you were talking about to quickly find your message and all the related context.

* Adding people to group conversations: Loop new people into the conversation, giving them full access to everything that’s been said so far.

* Forwarding: Pass individual messages along to other friends.

* Unsubscribing, or removing yourself from a conversation: Leave a group conversation when you no longer wish to receive new messages.

* Sending attachments: In addition to sending links, photos and videos, you can now attach external files to your messages.

But there are a few catches lurking here. For example, deleting individual messages:

“”At this time, you cannot delete an individual message from a conversation. You can, however, archive or delete an entire conversation.””

“”At this time”” is probably shorthand for “”we messed up the code and are still trying to work it out, so we’re pretending it’s a feature””.

And what about subject lines? Here is a great example of Facebook trying to fix something that ain’t broke:

“”The new Facebook Messages is more informal than other messaging systems. Now your messages are included as part of ongoing conversations, which means that some aspects of traditional messaging systems (such as subject lines and the Sent messages folder) are no longer part of your experience. This makes your conversations easier to read, especially when your messages are mixed with your chats and texts.

“”If someone sends you a message from a system that still includes subject lines, the subject line appears in bold as the first line of the message within your conversation.

“”If you’re looking for a message and you can’t immediately see it in your main messages view, try finding it using search. You can also easily view all your sent messages.””

In other words, if you thought your e-mail was a mess before, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

The one big advantage of Facebook e-mail is having your email integrated with your messages, chats and texts, which “”makes it easier to check them all at once””. And, they suggest, “”if you’re looking for a message later, you don’t have to worry about how it was sent since all your different types of messages are in one place.””

Facebook messages are also compatible with traditional email systems: they specifically mention Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail.

“”When people send you emails from these external systems, they’re delivered directly to your Facebook Messages. And when you send messages to external email addresses, they’re formatted to look like your messages on Facebook, including your name and profile picture along with your message.””

Getting and responding to messages from your phone could become a revolutionary new service via Facebook:

“”Once you turn on text messaging, friends can check the ‘Send to Phone’ option when they send you messages. If a friend checks this box, you’ll receive a text that contains the message. Simply reply to the text from your phone, and your friend will receive your reply as a Facebook message. It will also be logged in the ongoing conversation with your friend, which you can view from your Messages home page.””

No mention, however, is made of the cost implications, if any.

But let’s get some perspective on the threat Facebook poses to competitors. Gmail has been around since 2004, it has been evolving steadily in response to both users’ needs and market demands, and it has built up a user base of around 200-million. Aside from offering 8GB of mail storage, it also provides business services targeting any sized business from small to large enterprises.

Facebook Messages is a clear and open challenge to Google. However, the very size of the Gmail base should tell you that Google isn’t in dire peril of losing its user base overnight.

Facebook has never covered itself in glory either with the flexibility of its messaging system, nor with its commitment to the privacy of user data. The fact that it has more than 500-million registered users will not translate overnight into 500-m mail users, although they may well fudge it by saying that 500-million people now have access to Facebook Messages. They still need to take account of several factors, not least of which is that people spend time customising their mail systems, and won’t suddenly ditch them for a newcomer.

More important, Google has spent six years developing and evolving its mail system. Facebook is not going to arrive with something overnight that will take it on directly.

However, Facebook will have the advantage of being able to target its younger as well as its less experienced users, those who’ve not yet spent time customising their own e-mail set-up, those who are still uncertain about how e-mail works and, of course, those who have never had issues with managing mail.

So yes, they will be big from the start, but they will not be a big threat from the start. That will come later, as they learn from their mistakes. But simply climbing into the ring does not give you the heavyweight title.

* Facebook mail is not yet available to all. Borrowing from Gmail’s initial roll-out strategy, you have to wait for an invite to join. You then get a quota of invites you can send out too. If it worked for Gmail, why not for Facebook?

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