Facebook’s press event on Monday morning, in advance of the Web 2.0 Summit, has the rumor mills churning. The buzz is about just one thing: that Facebook is about to launch an email service, one that many are calling "the Gmail killer."
On the surface, a Facebook email application seems to makes a lot of sense. But there are also plenty of reasons why Facebook might have something else up its sleeve. Here’s our breakdown.
Why the idea of a Facebook email service seems to make sense
Philosophically, Facebook is about enabling people to connect to each other. Economically, it's about getting you to put every last detail of your life into its databases. Those two goals mesh nicely in an email application. Despite all the IM'g and texting going on, email is still a primary mode of communication. A lot of the way you communicate with the people you’re connected to still happens in email. And many of your life details get recorded in those communications. So a Facebook email app would seem to advance the company’s philosophical goals. And it would help the company’s bottom line, because it could suck that much more information about you into its databases.
From a user perspective, a Facebook-enabled email system could be attractive. We want to organize the increasingly disparate parts of our lives. Email is one of those, and a standalone app like Outlook is often siloed from the rest of the information we track. An email application that’s tied in with all the other parts of our lives that Facebook is tying together (photos, places, events), could be enormously powerful—if done right.
And why in reality Facebook probably isn’t building one
First, ask yourself: Would you, as a user, switch over to a new email service at the drop of a hat? Some would, if the feature set were sufficiently rich. Many of us moved to Gmail, despite already being on another service. But changing email systems is not an uncomplicated thing for the average user. No matter how good the Facebook service was, most existing emailers would prefer to stay put than to have to go through the time-consuming process of porting their details over to a new system, not to mention getting everyone they know to update their address books.
Plus, the assumption that Facebook is building an email service is overly simplistic. Facebook doesn’t just add new features because other people have them. It is a highly focused company that chooses projects based on how they advance the company’s overall goal of connecting people (and collecting information about them). It also tends to look forward to where the proverbial puck is going, rather than investing resources in building what already exists today.
It invests resources in features that meet emerging—rather than existing—needs. As COO Sheryl Sandberg said at the Nielsen 360 Conference in June: "In consumer technology, if you want to know what people… will do tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today.… The latest figures say that only 11 percent of teenagers e-mail daily. So e-mail — I can’t imagine life without it — is probably going away."
Lastly, both CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have denied that Facebook is building an email competitor. At the D8 Conference in June, Zuckerberg said Facebook was interested in short-form communications, not email. "We’re not building a Web-mail competitor," he told Kara Swisher. "There are definitely these great services that people use that are full Web mail clients, but I think the opportunity is more around short-form communications." And from Sandberg at Nielsen 360: "What do teenagers do? They SMS and increasingly, they use social networking."
Bottom line: Expect to see Facebook unveil some kind of communication tool on Monday. It will be one that leverages the company’s core goal—connecting users—with a set of features that draw from Facebook’s existing functions. Expect it to move the concept of text-based communication forward in forms we haven’t yet conceived of.
Update: It looks like our assessment is on target—mostly. The New York Times is citing two unnamed sources as saying Facebook will unveil "a revamped set of communications services." The sources told the Times that the system will include "an email system," though they also told the paper that "the new communications services will not be meant to be used on their own, like other e-mail systems. Instead, they will be tightly coupled with Facebook’s other services." According to the Times: "They are not trying to do a standalone rival to Gmail," the person said. "The are building an integrated experience in everything they do."
So the verdict is still out whether Facebook's new system will include an email service of the kind we're all used to. But it's clear that they're releasing a new set of communication tools—and ones that will probably look different than the tools we've been used to using up to today.