Facebook Unveils New Messaging Platform

Facebook may be setting itself up to compete with Google. It's about to start rolling out what it is calling a "modern messaging" system. The social network has added e-mail to its list of ways to communicate via Facebook.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

This morning, like most mornings, millions of people around the world are waking up, rolling over, reaching for a smart phone and checking Facebook. If they're not actually reading in bed, they may do it later.

INSKEEP: Now, the massive social network wants to become a larger part of your life. It's rolling out what it calls a Modern Messaging System - it's adding an email service.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports that Facebook may be setting itself up to compete with Google.

LAURA SYDELL: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the aim of introducing the new system is to bring all the ways that people communicate together in one place: IM, wall posts, text messages.

Mr. MARK ZUCKERBERG (CEO, Facebook): All the different channels that you might want to communicate with, that should all kind of be seamlessly integrated very easily.

SYDELL: Zuckerberg thinks having an email account attached to Facebook will make it easier to sort out SPAM or unwanted emails.

Mr. ZUCKERBERG: Because we know who your friends are, right, because you put in your friends list and your friends have put in their friends list, we can do some really good filtering for you to make sure that you only see messages that you really care about.

SYDELL: Facebook's email will merge with Facebook IM and wall posts to allow you to see the history of every communication you had with a particular friend.

Zuckerberg says he also talked to a lot of young people who didn't like to use email because they found it too formal.

Mr. ZUCKERBERG: Right. I mean, the weight and friction, writes: Hey, mom, at the top to introduce it. Write: love, Mark, at the end to conclude it.

SYDELL: So Zuckerberg, an informal guy who likes his employees to call him Zuck, says Facebook's email won't be as formal. That's why some analysts think that for grownups especially, the new Facebook system isn't likely to really be a threat to more serious email services like Google's Gmail.

Ray Valdes is an analyst with Gartner.

Mr. RAY VALDES (Research Director, Gartner Research): For example, I have 30,000 messages in my inbox at Google Mail, and I can search that in a couple of seconds. I can create filters. I can do forwarding and have rules and things like that.

SYDELL: The real competition is not over email. It's over where people spend their time online. Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of digital journalism at Columbia University, says Facebook's new service is a tool to keep people on Facebook.

Professor SREE SREENIVASAN (Digital Journalism, Columbia University): And their idea is that here is yet another thing that you will do with us instead of doing elsewhere.

SYDELL: Sreenivasan says all the online players - Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft - are fighting to keep you on their sites as long as possible. That way they can feed you more ads and make more money.

Prof. SREENIVASAN: At the end of the day, it's going to be where are the eyeballs? And then, how do companies get at them?

SYDELL: All of the online companies want as much information about you as possible, so they can target the advertising. Google has been a leader in online ads but Facebook could catch up.

Earlier this year, it surpassed Google as the most visited Web site in the U.S. Google is still the king of online advertising; it has about $24 billion in annual sales to what analysts estimate is Facebook's one billion. Facebook isn't public so that figure is an estimate.

But analyst Valdes says Google cannot rest on its laurels.

Mr. VALDES: They better start losing sleep over this, because Facebook is showing that they are iterating, rapidly in a number of different areas; all of which eventually will have an impact unless Google responds.

SYDELL: But for now, Valdes doesn't think there's going to be a mass exodus from Google's Gmail or even Yahoo and AOL email.

Columbia Professor Sreenivasan says Facebook's new system is no slam dunk. He wonders if anyone remembers a year ago when Google launched a product called Wave, which had a messaging service similar to Facebook's. The media jumped on it.

Prof. SREENIVASAN: It was called an email killer back then, and journalists were all hungry to talk about it. And I said, you know, let's kind of see what this is. We don't know yet.

SYDELL: And you can be excused if you still don't know what Google Wave is. Google gave up working on it last summer.

Facebook says it will take several months to roll out its new service. And Sreenivasan thinks we should wait until after it's out, to decide if it's really going to take over the email market.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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