Business, Media, Sci-Tech

Facebook to 500 million people: You’ve got mail

By Sipho Hlongwane 15 November 2010

If TechCrunch’s sources are correct, Facebook is on the cusp of announcing a web-based email client at their November Event in San Francisco on Monday. A Facebook email could tick all the right boxes, especially among Facebook types. How worried should Google be? Very worried. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Back in February, TechCrunch reported on Facebook’s reworked messaging client, given the rather understated title of “Project Titan”. “Facebook is completely rewriting its messaging product and is preparing to launch a fully featured webmail product in its place, according to a source with knowledge of the product,” TechCrunch said. “Internally it’s known as Project Titan. Or, unofficially and perhaps over-enthusiastically, the Gmail killer.”

All indications are that the product will be unveiled at today’s by-invitation-only press event, which is touted as a “special event is in advance of Mark Zuckerberg’s conversation on 11/16 at Web 2.0 Summit”. The last event unveiled a few big additions to Facebook Places, including Deals, so the expectation is that Zuckerberg is going to have something tantalising to show the gathered journalists.

What this all means, should you choose to accept, is that you’ll get your own email address, probably the same as your personalised Facebook URL, with full POP/IMAP support, meaning you can manage and use your email account without actually logging into Facebook.

As a Facebook user, you care because Facebook will no doubt bring its own light sabre (and the reason why the site is hated so) to its email client: It knows everything about you. Facebook knows who you’re friends with, who you’ve dated and dumped, and whose parties you attend. Facebook’s email product would be light years more useful than Gmail or any of the other web-based email clients if all that knowledge is integrated into the product. The Mail & Guardian’s digital platforms manager, Alistair Fairweather, wrote on Memeburn, “Where Facebook might help is that it inherently understands who is most important in your life, which goes a long way to predicting which emails are going to be the most important. So it will rank emails from your husband high, and emails from your old school boyfriend low – ensuring you get to hubby before you bother with chubby.” It is possible to do this on Gmail, but it’s not very intuitive and isn’t really worth the effort of finding all the individual settings to tweak.

According to the Guardian, Facebook email will be spam-free. Or rather, it will be a lot tougher to set up a spam account on Facebook, as opposed to Gmail or Hotmail.

Why Google will be watching this one very closely is the numbers. According to Gizmodo, “Facebook has 500 million active users. Gmail is estimated at 170 million registered users, while Yahoo has 303 million and Hotmail is still king of the hill at 364 million.” If just 20% of Facebook’s active users sign up for an account, they’ll be right up their competitors’ trumpets in a flash.

But Facebook has a reputation for not being careful with its users’ private information. What sort of effect might this have on people signing up for Fmail? Fairweather said that although Facebook’s shoddy privacy reputation might give some people pause, most users will not be tech-savvy enough to be aware of privacy issues. “I don’t think Gmail and Fmail will be direct competitors. I think Fmail will open up email to a whole new market, and reinvigorate it in a market that has abandoned email for social media,” Fairweather said.

“In that context, the people who are already worried about Facebook’s security won’t be convinced to use it for email, but many of those people have already abandoned Facebook anyway.”

For all their chest-thumping about having a “Gmail killer”, Fmail will probably fail to convince enough of those who use the Google email client as a primary address to switch over. People are as attached to their email addresses as they are to their cellphone numbers, their family doctor and their hairstylists. A large chunk of Facebook users signed on to the social network using a mobile number and by offering them their very first email account, Fmail should corner a significant chunk of the market.

Unlike Google’s disastrous attempt to rewrite the rules of email, Fmail should be far more successful. Its offering, by being organically integrated into the world’s largest social network, will likely be a natural extension of it. It may feel a little too intrusive for the internet’s “olde worlde” users, but it could be just perfect for the Facebook Generation. DM

Read more: TechCrunch, TechCrunch on Project Titan, Gizmodo, Memeburn.


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