14 November 2010

The future of Facebook Mail

Facebook MailThe past couple of days, the hottest speculation on the Internet surrounds the rumored ‘Project Titan’, ’s secret e-mail project, that may be launching next week. Let’s see how this could play out, if Facebook plays it’s cards just right:

Right from the launch, it was perfectly clear that the new mail service would be just another weapon in Facebook's arsenal aimed at taking over the online world. It didn’t take long to notice that all messages from a @facebook address to a third-party email provider also show up in the Facebook inbox associated with that external address. A pretty big incentive for the average user to shift his or her entire conversations over to the new address, instead of maintaining his old inbox. And if the email was not connected to any Facebook account, the footer would conveniently invite the recipient to join Facebook and enjoy a new free email account and all the other wonderfully social things Facebook could offer.

There was a small outrage when another ‘feature’ became widely known: reply to f-mail and you’re instantly ‘friends’ with the sender! Facebook discarded all the criticism against it by arguing all other major email services have a way to auto-add recipients to your address book. This method is actually superior, because it only connects you to people that have approved the link by replying. Even the 5000 friends limit remained firmly in place; after all, most of us don’t interact with that many people in out entire lifetime anyway. And if you’re a business, just set up a Page and get an unlimited communication channel with your ‘fans’. Reports by power users that Facebook actually defriends people you haven’t interacted with in a long time to keep you under the 5000 limit were mostly ignored by the masses.

An innovation that was generally welcomed was that attachments were stored ‘in the cloud’, with messages only including a link. Of course, the files can be accessed – and edited in some cases, like Office formats – only if you log in to Facebook, as with any other content on the site. And the privacy settings for regular sharing would still apply; sending a couple of photos through Facebook mail would actually create a new album on your profile and, by default, notify your friends you uploaded new photos.

As expected, there was support for exporting your mailbox out of Facebook, but it required logging in through Facebook Connect. Naturally, there was some lag before desktop clients implemented the feature. In the mean time, Facebook didn’t waste any time announcing users can import third-party mailboxes into their Facebook inbox. When tried to block access to Gmail, Facebook started offering free phone support to any user wanting to switch from Gmail, walking them through the process of exporting to Yahoo!, Hotmail or other supported providers, and after that to Facebook.

Facebook ExplorerFast-forward a couple of years: with no viable competition in sight, Facebook hasn’t stopped growing and now more than 75% of Internet users have an identity on the Network. The next revolution: a new Internet protocol, fbtpFacebook Transfer Protocol. It’s a move to simplify the browsing for it’s billion-sized audience, because it accesses Facebook content directly, without the need to type facebook.com in the browser. The first to implement the new protocol was Microsoft, launching a new browser within a week of the announcement. The Facebook Explorer was faster and leaner than any of the competition, because it discarded backward compatibility with the old web and would only access Facebook content. Since by now most sites and online services had a Facebook page or app, it proved a huge success, gaining nearly 30% market share in the first year.

The tight collaboration with Microsoft became even more clear with the release of Windows 8. The face recognition required for logging in to the computer is tied to your Facebook account, so failing to provide a recognizable photo of yourself would result in reduced functionality and web access restricted to the ever shrinking world outside Facebook. Soon after, Facebook starts to require that every user verifies their account with a valid ID, including full name, birthday and photograph. Accounts not verified within three months would be automatically removed and their friends penalized with one week suspension of their account, for not reporting a fake profile. That’s when people start calling Facebook ‘TripleB’ – the Blue Big Brother.

Of course, this is just a figment of my imagination. The real life will probably be completely different in surprising ways. Personally, I don’t think Facebook Mail will make big changes in online communication, not in the short term at least, and I’m sure Facebook will find methods to protect it’s ‘walled garden’ even while trying to appear more open. But enough speculation: let’s wait and see what it actually offers.

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