The story of Facebook thus far is one of incredible success. As Hollywood recently told us, it made the jump from a small ‘hot-or-not’ joke website to the biggest social networking hub in the world quicker than you can say “Who uses MySpace anymore?!”. The stats give a pretty clear picture; Facebook has over 500 million active users, which equates to roughly one person in fourteen. In the world. You don’t get much bigger than that.
But it seems that being the biggest just isn’t enough. This week it was announced that Facebook
will be rolling out a new service: Facebook Messages. A relaunch of the ‘Messages’ tab, it aims to combine several methods of communication into one ‘social inbox’, including email, SMS messaging and online chats, and will offer all 500 million users a unique @facebook.com email address. While Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, has directly stated he is not looking at this as the end for separate email services such as Gmail, he is clearly looking to enhance Facebook’s reputation as one of the greatest web innovators so far.
Email has long been one of the most groundbreaking features provided by the Internet, allowing
almost instant communication between two points around the globe. In fact, email was around far
earlier than the Internet which we know today; the first email was sent as early as 1971, between two computers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, via a network called ARPANET. The engineer, Ray Tomlinson, discovered the capability almost by accident; playing with two programs which let users leave messages for each other on the same computer, and used a third program as an extension, to allow messages and files to be sent and received by different machines.
The birth of the public Internet (the World Wide Web) in 1991 made this technology available to all and by 1996 the words ‘Internet’ and ‘Electronic Mail’ were becoming commonplace. Now we are
firmly in the Digital age, nobody reading this need be told just how important email has become,
both in the business world and for personal use.
So it seems only natural that Facebook would want a bite of this potentially very profitable apple. Email is still a very lucrative market in which big names like Google, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo are constantly improving their services with new features, in an attempt to win new users. But with so many options already available, how will people react to yet another hat thrown into the ring?
One key factor is the issue of integration. Facebook wants to pool all communications tools into one big service, and hopes to win people over to this style of thinking. This strategy is actually becoming more common; the relaunched Windows Live Messenger springs to mind as another service which combines email, chat and social media, by linking to Facebook and other social networks within the Messenger panel itself.
But integration seems very much a matter of personal preference. For some the idea of having all
of your services easily accessible in one go will be very appealing, especially those who spend only a small amount of time online, whereas others will doubtless be used to keeping things separate. And then there are those of us who are in between: happy with our current services, but open-minded to the possibility of something better coming along.
Ultimately, Facebook Messages is coming, and we will all get a chance to try it for ourselves over the next few months. It has been described as the biggest project the company has worked on to date, and it will have to be impressive to win over users from other established services such as Gmail, and those against the idea of integrating email with social media. But one key fact works in Facebook’s favour: while the mass appeal of Facebook Messages may currently be questionable, with over 500 million users, who cares if only half of them like it?