Is Facebook really planning a 'Gmail killer'? Is Gmail ready to be killed off only six years after it was launched in April 2004 – when Facebook itself was only two months old and limited to Mark Zuckerberg and everyone else at Harvard University? Stay tuned...
• how Facebook Messages could turn bad
• the good things about Facebook Messages
• final thoughts and analysis on Facebook Messages
Suppose for a second that Facebook is about to launch a 'Gmail killer'. What does that mean for spam?
Graham Cluley, the oft-quoted security head at Sophos, says a Facebook email service won't mark the end of spam: "It may, however, mean more of a different kind of spam."
What Cluley refers to is spam sent by cybercriminals from compromised Facebook accounts. "More emphasis by Facebook on email could mean that the social network becomes even more attractive for spammers to abuse," he says.
"Don't forget, cybercriminals are like a horde of hungry lions looking for their next meal. If they see a whole bunch of zebras (users) congregating in one place (Facebook) for a quick drink at the waterhole, don't be surprised if they focus their attention there. Spam makes the bad guys money, so they're going to carry on finding ways to send spam for as long as they can."
Tom Scott, writing for the Guardian's Technology Blog, says: "Despite the hyperbolic headlines that will inevitably follow tonight's launch, the truth is – of course – that Facebook Mail will be neither a swift revolution nor a privacy disaster. It'll just be another incremental improvement – but perhaps also a step change – in one of many social networks, and another small step forward for our online lives."
Basically, everyone and their mother is 100% certain that Facebook is going to do something which takes it further into the messaging field, which means of course that (just as with Google's Gmail) it will be able to see more of what information is flowing through the internet, and particularly what information is being shared around the "social graph". That doesn't mean it will actively spy on it, any more than Google's staff sit around reading your emails; but it does offer even more chances to sell stuff against it. Because you can bet that if there is an email offering tonight it will come with the most tightly targeted advertising you can imagine.
But in a world where free webmail is commonplace, and Gmail offers IMAP, which means you can use it on a computer and never see a Google advert, what's compelling about a Facebook offering? Why use that, rather than anything else?
Over at Facebook HQ, the journalists and others are milling about, awaiting the entrance of the
chief executive of Facebook. We're all going to be mightily disappointed if he uses the time simply to say that he's not at all like the portrayal in The Social Network, as much as anything because he's already done that - he said at Y Combinator in October that the biggest difference between the movie and real life stems from the fact that movie-makers "can't wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things."
Newsflash! Robert Scoble, the man who knew (when he worked for Microsoft) that Vista would be a hit, says on Twitter that "Mark Zuckerberg just told me that what everyone expects isn't quite right on. 'It's not quite email.' Then told me to watch presentation."
In a world of instant gratification, this means that we may have to wait five entire minutes – possibly more - to find out what "not quite email" actually is. Fortunately, we have laid in provisions.
Meanwhile, the milling journalists at Facebook are... sitting down. Something is happening...
OK, and we're off: Livestream is saying there are 11,700... 11,938 viewers.
Zuckerberg: "really appreciate all the time you guys [girls too?] have made coming to these announcements."
Everyone is on Facebook cafeteria chairs.
"A couplayears ago, Thanksgiving, we were hanging out with my girlfriend's family, who has a high school sister. I wanted to know what software they were using, it makes me feel really old." (Laughter.)
"I asked what they use for email? They said they don't use anything, it's too slow. I said what do you mean, it's instantaneous... I was boggled by this."
6.01pm: "They were like no, email is too slow. I said what is this. They said it's too formal, the weight and friction of thinking who you want to send it to, the subject line, write 'hey mom' at the top, all this extra stuff you put in the email adds to the cognitive load."
"So I asked them what they do.. they said they use Facebook. I said when I get an email on Facebook I find out through email. They said, we're already there."
Email gets used internally.. but a lot of folks don't see it anyway. (High schoolers make Zuckerberg feel old? Give him another 20 years.)
6.03pm: Presently around 350m people using messages on Facebook - "big part of that because it's a really simple system." 4bn messages sent every day including messages and IMs, "the private private sharing that goes on on the service".
Still waiting for the big reveal. He's set up the failure - email is too 'heavy' - but what else would you do?
19,300 people watching this online... 19,625 people.
"We don't think a modern messaging system will be email. It has a bunch of characteristics - seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal, short."
6.06pm: Working through the list - "immediate" should mean you send an email and displays immediately. (Er, it does on IMAP.)
"Personal" - what people like about SMS or IM is high signal-to-noise ratio: SMS or IM very likely to be from someone you care about.
(Honestly, Jemima would be loving this. It's like Zuckerberg has been listening to her thoughts. Oo, spooky idea.)
6.08pm: "It's not email. People will be able to have facebook.com email addresses but that's not the aim of it."
6.08pm: "Conversation history. Threading model is very archaic. In real life you have a stream of conversation with them, in IM or SMS you don't have multiple threads, you have one thread with them which has interesting properties, you can have the entire conversation in one view." (Er, like in Gmail?)
"You can have one history and go through it, you'll have one full rich history with your friends all around you."
Third thing: "Social inbox. Because we know who your friends are and your friends have put in their friends list we can put in really good filters to make sure you only see things you care about."
Spam is a big problem. "There are a lot of different classes of junk: how can email know that this is a legit message [from a person] but you don't care what they say."
6.11pm: Whitelists haven't been effective because people don't want to build lists - but Facebook does that automatically.
You can get your list from the friend-of-friend network - so you can check that less regularly.
(Zuckerberg is talking faster and faster and faster. He's really excited about this.)
6.12pm: So he recaps the introduction: seamless messaging, conversation history, social inbox. And now he hands over to Andrew Bosworth, director of engineering at Facebook.
Started a little over a year ago trying to build this. How to integrate Facebook Chat + Facebook messages? "We should be more integrated but because we have so many ways to communicate - phone, internet - it's hard to know how to do it." SMS for younger nephew, email for mother, "I have to hold this lookup table in my head to know how to contact people".
6.14pm: "We're giving people an @facebook.com email address which matches their Facebook username."
But he says it's not email, it's more like chat.
Shows how an "email" comes over in Facebook as a chat. Then how you can refer back through your message history.
[Thought: this might look great in a conversation that's just a few days or weeks old, but try to imagine how it would look once you've been on it for fiev years or 10 years.]
It's email but it arrives as a text, or a push notification on email.
Works with Jabber/XMPP, IMAP "on the way", Facebook API. IMAP won't be there at the launch but is being built. Hmm.
6.17pm: Looking back over previous chats he has had: "I feel jealous of the next generation who will be able to look back over this stuff."
[Yeah, but what if all it shows is the trajectory of a failing relationship? How will that look?]
6.20pm: Rebuilt the infrastructure. And whoa, they realised that they will have to support attachments. Facebook's is called Haystack.
"This is the biggest engineering team Facebook has ever put together for a project." You're thinking wow, it must easily be 50, perhaps 70, maybe 100?
"There they are, 15 engineers.."
That's your mythical man-month slain. 15 people working for a year.
Showing off social inbox: "junk will be somewhere else." Junk? There's junk on Facebook? No, it's bank statements, alumni statements.
He's making it sound like Gmail Priority Inbox on steroids. "We expect people will look at this once a day, but we expect them to be interacting with the other one all the time."
In short - Facebook looking to make you spend even more time on its site. I wonder what the mood is like in Google. They'll probably have questions: what's the capacity? How many messages?
"You can bounce emails that come from people who aren't in your friends. This is something people have wanted for ages." Er, it's something that's been standard in email programs for ages, surely.
6.25pm: Zuckerberg is back: "it's a huge problem as IM growth have grown faster than the number of people.. what we expect today, there was a lot of press today about this is an 'email killer', this is not an email killer, this is a messaging system that includes email as part of it. We don't expect people to turn off their Yahoo account or their Gmail account and use this.
"It's like those high school students, they're shifting to real-time messaging because it's simpler and helps people connect better and it's more fun and more valuable for them to use. If we do a good job with that, in six months, a year, two years out people will say this is the way to do it, maybe email isn't as important a part as it was before, and we can push messaging towards this important real-time simpler experience we can."
Going to be rolling out over the next few months via an invite system, and then you can invite people and watch it scale up.
6.27pm: 34,908 viewers of the live stream..
Q: (inaudible) .."What do the system not do that you want it to do?"
Zuck: "we want to have IMAP support, that's part of the philosophy that it should be interoperable. It speaks email protocol but having it sync is on the roadmap. There's a lot.. and we'll look at feedback.
"One thing heavy email users do is subject lines with multiple threads with the same person... we don't think that's the direction the world is going to go in, we think you'll have a single history with each person."
Q: what about people with multiple email addresses or platforms?
Zuck: "this is one of the complicated things we had to work out. If you have been interacting with someone by email.. it'll go by email. Or phone...[Basically it goes by the platform that it comes from.] We want to make this simple and lightweight. .. Policy Engine for routing these messages.
Bosworth: "we want it to feel like a conversation so you don't have to type BRB or GTG."
Zuck: "we've tried to make it so people don't have to think about this stuff. And also where not to send it - so it doesn't go to five different channels.
Q: any plans for VOIP?
Zuck: "maybe over time, but easier to unify the four channels - SMS, email, IM, ? [missed it] - we think this is a pretty big step by itself."
Q: adverts in messaging screen, content-driven ads, and where does this sit in the rivalry with Google for user time?
Zuck: "advertising works the same way as on the rest of Facebook, not on the text of the content, but it's about stuff that the user puts in, that's the difference from other ad networks, they track you around the web, but you put in that you like Green Day, we'll put in an ad for concert tickets.
"Competition with Google... I think Gmail's a really good product. I think it's funny, people say it's a 'Gmail killer'... [long ramble about codenames for the products, previously Gigabox, now Titan].. we think this will shift the communication. And if people like to use it they will."
Bosworth: "this will work with Gmail."
Q: Gmail has a private feature in chat, how about you?
Bosworth: "you can delete it, or archive it."
Zuck: "in other systems it's different.. but you could be IMing with someone who receives it as an email or an SMS, so it doesn't make sense to say you can't archive it. You can delete threads but in terms of separating email from IM.. we thought the off the record metaphor didn't make sense in terms of what we're doing."
Q: hurrah! BBC is asking a question! Is it Facebook's biggest technical challenge to date? And is it Facebook's aim to be the be-all and end-all?
Bosworth: "don't want to start a nerd fight.. it was a big challenge. As to its aim.. if people are used to IM it will look the same, email, Jabber, chat.. will provide a conversation that's ongoing. That it will feel like an ongoing conversation rather than fragmented messages that don't relate to each other."
Q: how will it affect the Social Graph for people who aren't on Facebook?
Bosworth: "we're focussed on people who you say are your friends..."
Q: but I have conversations with people who aren't on Facebook so you don't know my social graph as well as I do. So how does it work?
Zuck: "that's true... there's the three folders, Main, Friends, Junk... we don't start off knowing how to put email into the Main folder, but people will know to do that."
[Think this fails to understand the shifting nature of friendship and email relationships, or IM relationships.]
Q: what if my mom keeps sending funny cat emails... can I folter that?
Zuck: "no, but there's only going to be one thread with her." He laughs.
6.41pm: (One could also think of this a little as a landgrab for the future LinkedIn generation: that Facebook could become how business people of the future communicate.)
Q: what about people outside Facebook?
Zuck: "what we expect is that you're constantly checking your main folder... and you'll go to your old folder once a day, and if you want your grandmother's email in your Main inbox.. you will... I think that's what you're asking? I'm not sure?"
(The uncertainty shows how everyone has a different view of email. It's the elephant with blind people.)
Q: How do we email you in the press team?
Zuck: "after much discussion the Farm Bureau has agreed to give us fb.com." Huge grin. "And we've agreed not to sell farm subsidies."
Q: a lot of people on Facebook are casual, they're not my closest friends, I have Yahoo for my really close friends, is there some way this will discern between them?
Bosworth: "no, the email address [@facebook.com] is optional. But we think 'friend' is meaningful, and people will be able to send you messages, just as they can already today."
Q: this has you grouping people into close friend, not close friend in ways that aren't like the original goal of Facebook to expand your friends?
Bosworth: "it wasn't to expand the social graph, it was to map it." (Emphasis added because it's so key to understanding what Facebook is about.)
Q: How important will it be to have cell [mobile] phone messaging to get these messages?
Bosworth: "that's been built in for three or four years..."
Q: will users be associating emails with profiles, filling in holes where you don't have the information?"
Bosworth: "no, we're not planning to do that now... with SMS if they haven't set it up we'll send them an option to do it.."
Q: how much storage, and can you forward messages?
Bowsorth: "yes, you can forward messages, and you can select what in the conversation to forward, and you can group people in and you can leave the thread."
Storage? "We're not going to give a specific number.. if you're a good user and you're not abusing it, you'll have no problem. If you try to find the limits, you'll be abusing it, and you'll find them." [And get cut off, one assumes. But how? Exclusion from Facebook?]
And that's it! Finished up with 30,955 viewers of the live stream, which held up very well. As my colleague Adam Gabbatt points out, we don't even know what the name of "Project Titan" is in the wild. Wait, we do: Facebook Messages.
OK, so thinking of all the things that can go horrendously wrong with this, what do we think?
• if a spam link gets through your email and you click on it and it sends itself to your friends while infecting your machine (something that happens pretty often) then it is going to have the chance to get everywhere – not just onto computers where you view a status update, but on PCs and phones. Even a hundred million phones might begin to look like an attractive target for malware authors, especially as they could target one browser (those running WebKit) and aim malware at that.
• will you use it for business emails? Will you be allowed to use it for business emails? Probably not. It might look great to the high schoolers (secondary school for British readers) who surprised Zuckerberg by their unwillingness to use email, but once you're working for an organisation that sees Facebook as synonymous with dossing, it's not going to look so clever.
• can organisations with Facebook Pages email you? That's going to be a spamfest, though people will of course be able to move those emails to "Junk".
• the problem - the real, core problem – with email of all stripes (because that's what this is tackling: IM and SMS work pretty well, as Zuckerberg acknowledged) is that sometimes you get emails from people you've never heard of, which you want to get. And sometimes you get emails from people you have heard of which you want to ignore. And sometimes you want those two groups to swap over. And you're dealing with multiple threads and topics. It's complicated, email, which may be part of why nobody has managed to "solve" it.
• tying together IM, email, SMS and Facebook email-things is a smart idea. It pulls email into the 21st century, because even though IM and SMS are 20th-century products, they've made a lot more sense from the start: SMS lives on your phone, which is personal to you (which is why people get enraged by text spam); IM is particular to you. Email though can be generic and annoying, but Facebook is clearly approaching this as a communication problem, and asking how email can be made to behave more like good communication media.
• knowing what platform you want to receive something on, and not duplicating messages over multiple platforms, is smart (assuming they manage to pull that off).
• integrating attachments lifts this above the idea of just text, and accepts that we have multi-capable devices that can view attachments directly. Well, some people have those.
• it isn't email. Or more precisely, it isn't just email. That's the single key thing here: Facebook is not trying to be a Gmail killer... any more than Google's search engine wanted to be a Windows killer. It's orthogonal to the idea of email; it treats email not as a single problem to be solved, but as part of what you use to communicate which needs to be integrated into your life. So it tries to rise above Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo mail, and give you the helicopter view of what your friends are contacting you about.
• no worrying about how much storage space you've used, and how much you've got left, as long as you don't try to find the limits. Hotmail and Yahoo users might be happy for that. (Some Gmail users might even find it a relief.)
we've seen Google try to "redefine" email by integrating email, IM, chat and, um, project management software. Yes, we remember Google Wave: launched May 2009, interred August 2010 without a flower or a tear.
So why should Facebook Messages, which is trying to integrate email, IM and chat (plus Facebook on-site communication), come off any better? Are we going to be throwing earth on the coffin in 15 months' time?
Probably not. This isn't a big bang; and where Google was trying to generate excitement but required people to learn an entirely new way of working which hardly anyone could wrap their heads around, Facebook is simply using what we already have and trying to pull in other media.
In some ways it's similar to what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows Phone 7, which is organised (in theory) into "hubs" which "bring together related content from the Web, applications and services into a single view to simplify common tasks".
Well, Facebook Messages too. It's related content - conversations you're having - offered in a single view, but on different devices or programs. It doesn't say you're in email, so you can only see email-y things; it accepts that you might want to see texts in your email too, if you spend your life in your inbox. (One thing I'm puzzled by is how it will represent updated conversations in email: my understanding is that IMAP, and email, is a single-message protocol; IM and SMS are more fluid.)
It's easy to think that people won't use this - but they will, because it's not email. It's easy to think of instances where people won't use this (business, really private stuff that they want to keep right off Facebook and everything) – but other people will.
In short, it's not going to be the big bang that finally makes email usable; that may be impossible for the vast majority of email. It's probably not going either to wipe out spam: just wait for the first few weeks for reports of spam floods, mass infections and so on as people unwarily fall victim to hoaxes or malware.
But Zuckerberg has his eyes on the longer term: six months, one year, two years. He's already got 500m potential users, and he is going to try to pull them all in with Facebook Messages. Even if this only captures a little slice of the email market (in preference to, say, Hotmail or Yahoo or Gmail, because people find it more convenient for whatever reason) then that's a huge number of messages that Microsoft, Yahoo and Google don't get to serve, and which Facebook does.
Zuckerberg's in it for the long term. And that's what makes him the person you have to watch most closely of all.