Facebook doesn't want to simply take over the world's e-mail, it wants to render it obsolete.
The world's biggest social network unveiled its revamped messaging system on Monday, presenting to its 500 million users a new interface that it promises will seamlessly integrate into one simple tool not only e-mail, but also text messaging, instant chat conversations and Facebook's own internal messaging service.
Basically, Facebook aims to act as a one-stop hub for all the social communication of its users - and even people who don't use Facebook.
The company is taking a direct shot at competitors such as Google - firms that have their own brand of e-mail services and with which Facebook is furiously competing for advertising dollars and Web users' time.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent much of Monday's presentation saying that the company's new messaging system - which doesn't appear to have a name - isn't aimed at wiping out traditional e-mail services such as rival Google's Gmail, but it seems that is exactly what Facebook wants to do in the long run.
"This is not an e-mail killer, this is a messaging system that includes e-mail as one part of it," he told reporters in San Francisco. After a few months of using the service, he added, Facebook users may well decide that "maybe e-mail isn't as important a part as before."
However, as Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray pointed out, "Facebook isn't interested in being a tool for your flood of bills, e-mail newsletters or other communications - it's about facilitating and enhancing your personal relationships. In that way, Facebook won't replace Gmail, but it does want to be the platform for consumers' personal relationships and communications and leave the boring stuff to Gmail and others."
In the new Facebook system - which will be rolled out over the next few months - users can communicate through any of the four messaging mediums, through phones or computers. The resulting conversations will all be stored and archived in one place on the social network. Facebook users will also get e-mail addresses with the "@Facebook.com" suffix. The site will take care of figuring out which medium to use to send the message to the recipient, such as via text message or e-mail.
E-mail constitutes a large part of Internet traffic, but the communication system is plagued by a ceaseless flood of spam and malicious messages. Many e-mail services have tried to improve the user experience by employing sophisticated filtering algorithms and arranging messages more contextually.
But Facebook can offer a potentially far more effective filtering algorithm: its existing knowledge of its users' friends. The new messaging system will be split into three inboxes: a high-priority one for a user's friends, one for all other messages, and one for anything identified as junk. The "friends" inbox will initially be populated based on a user's list of Facebook friends. But when a user receives a text message, e-mail or other form of communication from a person who isn't on Facebook, they can add that person to the "friends" inbox.
That last step represents a potentially lucrative expansion of Facebook's business model. Every time a user adds a non-Facebook friend to their "friends" inbox, the company can expand its social graph - its massive database of all the connections between Facebook users - beyond the confines of its website.
If the new messaging service takes off, Facebook can, in effect, begin to learn about the minute social interactions not only of its 500 million users, but almost anyone else who communicates with them.
Other e-mail services have been unable to effectively sort messages by social interaction because, as Facebook's director of engineering Andrew Bosworth put it, "they didn't have the one thing that matters - the social graph."
But Facebook does, and as it tries to sell users on its all-in-one solution to digital communication, the company will try to leverage that social graph in the hopes of expanding it.