Facebook's revamped messaging platform deepens the social-networking giant's ties with Microsoft, and positions both companies to attack their mutual competitor-Google-from slightly different angles. The new Facebook Messages blends text, SMS, e-mail and Facebook chat into a unified communications platform diametrically opposed to Google's Gmail; at the same time, Facebook Messages' increased integration with Microsoft Office gives Redmond a new tool with which to challenge the cloud-based Google Docs.
"Facebook's new messaging platform integrates the Office Web Apps to enable Facebook users to view Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents with just one click," Takeshi Numoto, corporate vice president for Microsoft Office, wrote in a Nov. 15 posting on The Microsoft Office Blog. "Now you can easily share those ideas with your friends and family on Facebook."
Facebook messages now offer "View on Office.com," which users can click to open a Word, Excel or PowerPoint attachment in a new browser window. That feature leverages Microsoft's Office Web Apps, its cloud platform that offers stripped-down access to Microsoft's traditionally desktop-bound productivity applications. Those users can also click "Download" to send the attachment to their hard drive, where they can open it using Office.
This isn't the first time that Microsoft and Facebook have collaborated on something related to cloud productivity. In April, the two companies launched Docs for Facebook, an online applications platform that also let Facebook users create and share Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents.
Docs for Facebook was a product of FUSE (Future Social Experiences) Labs, itself a creation of departing Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie. In an October 2009 memo, Ozzie suggested that Microsoft had an increased interest in developing social platforms and applications in a business context; FUSE Labs would allow the company to quickly capitalize on social networking opportunities developed by Microsoft Research and any associated entities. "The lab will prioritize efforts," he wrote, "where its capabilities can be applied to areas where the company's extant missions, structures, tempo or risk might otherwise cause us to miss a material threat or opportunity."
For Facebook, the Messages platform represents an opportunity to leapfrog Webmail-style services. "Messages is not e-mail," reads a Nov. 15 posting on Facebook's corporate blog, despite the ability to use an @facebook.com e-mail address. "We modeled it closely to chat and reduced the number of things you need to do to send a message. We wanted to make this more like a conversation." Presumably, the integration with Office not only increases the appeal of @facebook.com to any business users, but also gives Facebook additional "stickiness" with a mass audience-and the more time that audience spends cruising profiles or sending Word documents, the more data collected by Facebook.
In a standing-room-only press conference Nov. 15 at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered additional insight into Facebook's strategy. "There are three things that we think create the modern messaging system," he told the audience. "Seamless integration across 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."
Considering how Google also combines multiple communication methods onto its Gmail platform, including chat and voice-calling, one wonders how Facebook's announcement will ratchet up the already-growing tension between the companies.
Microsoft finds itself pressured to build out its cloud-productivity offerings in response to Google, which has been pushing Google Apps on both the consumer and business fronts. In March, Google acquired DocVerse, maker of an application that allows groups to collaborate online on Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. Google also filed a lawsuit against the federal government Oct. 29, alleging that its bid to update the Department of the Interior's e-mail and messaging system had been unfairly thwarted in favor of Microsoft's BPOS-Federal suite.
Seeking to build out its cloud offerings to businesses, Microsoft in October introduced Office 365, which combines Microsoft Office, SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and Lync Online into a unified online platform. The limited beta launch is taking place among a few thousand companies in 13 countries and regions, with general availability expected in 2011.
"Office 365 is the best of everything we know about productivity, all in a single cloud service," Kurt DelBene, president of Microsoft's Office Division, wrote in an Oct. 19 statement tied to the beta launch. "With Office 365, your local bakery can get enterprise-caliber software and services for the first time, while a multinational pharmaceutical company can reduce costs and more easily stay current with the latest innovations."
But only Facebook Messages, presumably, will allow those same users to examine an online spreadsheet or make changes to a Word document while perusing their friends' highly embarrassing photos.