SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook showed off a new messaging system that aims to give users quick access to emails and other communications like instant messaging in a unified way that stores a complete history of individual online conversations.
Facebook Messages is being rolled out over the next month to Facebook users who now have the option to get a new @facebook.com email address. Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg said his company has been working on the project for over a year. Internally, Facebook employees have been switched over to the @fb.com domain, freeing up the Facebook domain for users.
Messaging is nothing new to Facebook users who generate over four billion messages a day on the popular social network including instant messages and the company’s inbox system of one to one messaging.
“We don’t think a modern messaging system is going to be email,” Zuckerberg said at an event here. He said traditional email adds “a cognitive load” with the expectation that users will fill out a subject line, greeting and sign off in every message that a younger generation used to Facebook don’t want to deal with.
Facebook Messages collects the entire conversation between users, whether its parts started as email and later switched to IM or SMS. “Imagine being able to keep and view the entire conversation history, that’s a very powerful idea,” said Facebook engineer Adam Bosworth, who headed the Messages project. He noted that like many users, he has email and correspondence scattered across different email accounts and phone accounts.
The new system by default will give Facebook users the ability have messages – email, SMS, instant messages – sent to one of three folders, Main Inbox, Other and Junk. The Main Inbox will contain messages from Facebook friends and friends of friends, though users can edit the system to add anyone else. The “Other” folder could include things like online bills, statements and ecommerce offers.
“The modality we see people using is constantly checking the main folder,” said Zuckerberg.
The CEO also went to some length to dispute press reports the company internally viewed Messages as a “Gmail killer.”
“Gmail is a really good product. It’s really funny to hear people talking about it as a ‘Gmail killer,'” he said. “They have a great product that’s important to a lot of people.”
Facebook and privacy
Historically, Facebook has had to deal with a number of privacy issues that cropped up after it released new features that sometimes exposed user’s information in ways they didn’t want or didn’t know how to control. Zuckerberg said he appreciated being able to hold an event to explain what the company was doing before release in hopes that the system’s benefits and how it works will be better understood.
But Messages doesn’t necessarily afford the same level of privacy of competing systems. For example, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) offers an “off-the-record” feature in the chat function integrate with Gmail. By contrast, with Facebook Messages, all communications is saved unless the user chooses to delete parts of it after the fact, but not up front.
“We thought about the off-the-record metaphor, but it didn’t make sense for what we’re doing,” said Zuckerberg.
“You notice in Gmail that feature is only available in chat,” Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications at Facebook, told InternetNews.com. “We still let you delete after the fact, but if people don’t want a conversation to be stored at all, there are other systems they can use for that.”
Analyst Charlene Li said most people don’t put confidential material in a chat session and should realize in general not to post anything they don’t want shared with others.
“The big thing Facebook has done here is filtering your messages so you get all the ones from your friends in one place,’ Li, who heads the Altimeter Group research firm, told InternetNews.com. “And it gives Facebook tremendous lock-in, because if you leave Facebook, you’re leaving behind the entire communications suite.”
Li also noted that Facebook Messages comes out of the gate behind in some areas. “Google excels at voice and I Iove being able to get voice messages in my inbox,” she said. “Facebook doesn’t have that yet.”
David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.