SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook, closing in on signing up its 600 millionth user, is already the No. 1 social networking service in the world.
Now it wants to become the largest and most important real-time messenger by combining the world’s most-often-used digital media: SMS texting, e-mail, chat and regular Facebook messages.
Facebook Messages, which the company launched in invitation-only mode Nov. 15, also enables people to communicate with their friends using any connected device they want.
The bottom line is this: A person using Facebook Messages can send one message on any device, using any of the four media noted above, to anyone else using the service who, likewise, can use any media and device.
It’s a blurring — and a clarification — of digital communications as we know it.
Key problems Messages aims to solve
The key problem that Facebook Messages delves to solve is this: With so many conversations being held on different messaging platforms — including IMAP e-mail, Web e-mail, SMS texting, chat and Facebook itself — most personal communication becomes repeated and/or disconnected; therefore the time spent creating the content isn’t used in an efficient manner.
Facebook Messages aims to connect most of those dots at this time (except IMAP e-mail, which is still on the product roadmap). The irony here is that with people in the world now more connected than any time in history, their individual conversations do not intersect, because they are all created in differing networks and stored on different servers.
“If I had a hope about how this will change the way people communicate, it would be that we would feel a lot more like we were in continuous conversation with those that we care about, instead of this fragmented set of messages that don’t live in the same place and don’t relate to one another,” Facebook Chief Engineer Andrew Bosworth said.
Bosworth and Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg addressed a standing-room-only audience of reporters and analysts at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco.
Free @FB.com messaging address
Upon receiving an invitation by Facebook messages, current Facebook users can register for a free @FB.com address on Messages and start using the service. The new Messages service has no subject lines, no carbon copies and no blind carbon copies, so it is unlike a regular e-mail service.
Zuckerberg said that Facebook bought FB.com from The American Farm Bureau in order to use it for Messages.
“The farm bureau has agreed to give us FB.com, and we in return have agreed to not sell Farm subsidies,” Zuckerberg joked, adding that Facebook employees are using the domain internally now and eventually will have their own FB.com e-mail addresses.
Zuckerberg described Messages as being modeled more closely to chat in order to make messaging a conversation that transcends media and devices.
“These are the three things that we think create the modern messaging system,” Zuckerberg said. “Seamless integration across the the different ways people communicate; a single-conversation history, so you can have all your context with friends all in one place, very simple to draft with and communicate through; and a social inbox for filtering exactly the messages you want to see.”
We Don’t Want People to Have to Think About This Stuff
The Messages application resembles the familiar Facebook format, with active content in the center, ads to the right and tools to the left. When someone sends a message to the FB.com inbox, it will be able to be picked up by any device a user designates.
“We’ve tried to make it so people don’t have to think about this stuff,” Zuckerberg said. “We think that by looking at the way people send messages, we can determine where to send the messages to — and, equally as important — where not to, so you don’t have the same message in five different channels.
“That’s a lot of the value that’s being created by this product. You’ll just have to play around with it to let us know if we got it right.”
Messages will allow users to delete — or archive — any message or conversation thread they want at any time.
Asked about user security — a sensitive topic for a long time at Facebook — and whether Facebook will retain user e-mail information (such as e-mail addresses) and content information as it branches out to embrace other services, Zuckerberg said that Facebook “wasn’t targeting anything [such as ads] based on the content” of the messages.
“In general, our ad system is based on stuff the user puts in,” Zuckerberg said. “That’s a huge difference between our ad system and most other ad systems — which target you based on tracking you around the Web.
“We’re based on things like, you put in you like Green Day, and we tell you when Green Day is coming and give you an ad for concert tickets. This is different from what we’re talking about today.”
About how he sees Facebook Messages competing with other high-volume services, such as Google’s Gmail, Zuckerberg said: “I think Gmail’s a really good product … e-mail is still really important to a lot of people, and we think that this simpler kind of messaging is going to be how a lot of people will shift their communication. We’ll see how that happens over time, but if we build a good product that people will want to use, then they will use it.”
Gmail users welcome
“This product works fine with Gmail users,” Bosworth said. “If you want to send a message on Gmail to Messages, cool. We allow people to connect however they want to connect.”
Is Facebook planning to add a voice or video feature to the new app?
“Maybe over time, but we just thought it was a lot easier to unify the four channels that we’re talking about today … because they all have something basic in common, in that they’re all primarily text,” Zuckerberg said. “In the future, maybe something like voice … we’ll have to think about it and see what users ask for. But this is a pretty big step by itself.”
To a question about how much online storage will be allocated to each user in this new messaging scheme, Bosworth didn’t offer any specifics.
“We’re not going to give a specific number [of gigabytes for individual user storage],” Bosworth said. “I think this is the way modern messaging systems are going: Even Hotmail with SkyDrive does this kind of thing, where if you are a good user, and you are using this thing without abusing it, you should have no cause for concern.
“For people who are trying to find the limits, they are likely abusing the systems, and they will find the limits.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add more details about the new application.