Yes, it is that time of the year again. When everyone predicts the death of email.
As you know, Facebook announced it’s email feature yesterday, or should i say, emailsey feature, because it is not quite email. What is rather unglamorously called Facebook Messages, brings multiple formats of information – email, IM, phone text messages, in a single email style Inbox, and allows you to choose to recieve and send messages in any of these formats. There are no subject lines or CC fields, and all communications from the same person are wrapped in a mega-thread. At an invite only beta stage at this point, FaceBook will allow all users to request an @facebook address once this goes live.
Has email finally found its nemesis?
Facebook Messages give email a “social” spin and are in line with the “ongoing” style of conversations in Facebook. Although Mark Zuckberg emphasized that the new feature is “not an email killer”, this certainly is an effort to piggyback email’s popularity and wean users away from traditional email. Unlike the erstwhile Google Wave, which sought to replace email in epic fashion, Facebook Messages enter in friendly garb through the backdoor, with the covert intention of nudging email out. The Social Newtork would have us believe that it is all the frustration of being dumped by a girl, but clearly, a master strategist’s mind is at work, because this will give Facebook access to a large chunk of email users not yet on Facebook.
But as email has proved time and again, it is not going away. Since Facebook borrows from email’s structure, yet adds to it, there might be a gradual shifting of what people expect from email. You can be sure it will have some amount of success, because of the ready made user base of Facebook.
Fmail and Gmail
As expected, everyone is also assessing the impact of “Fmail” on Gmail, the new age poster boy of consumer email (not quite reflected by its market share). One can’t help but feel a little for Google. Before it could even fully bask in the glory of pushing out Microsoft and Yahoo out of their position of pre eminence, a young whipper snapper in the form of FaceBook has come along nipping at its heels.
Clearly, Facebook is not content with a position of being a mere social network. It seeks to be the internet destination of choice, or the internet ecosystem of choice, if you will, just as Google search has been for close to a decade. It is already well on its way, when it became the #1 most visited site in the US earlier this year.
If Fmail catches on, Gmail is clearly in trouble, in-spite of being the superior email solution, since users want access to all their information at a single place, and clearly social networking is today’s hub. When they spend a majority of their time on Facebook, they will have less of an incentive to leave and go to Gmail for mail, if they can have it right in Facebook.
Is this indicative of the future of business Communication and Collaboration?
Although there are no near term implications of Fmail in businesses, as Facebook is a pure consumer play company for now, one can speculate at its long term impact.
Fmail attempts to break down the barriers between different text based information, and keep everyone in the loop irrespective of device, and preferred mode of communication. This “convergence” and “device independence” is indeed the way of the future, and we ourselves have attempted to achieve this with HyperOffice for the SMB market.
However, for a Facebook/Facebook Messages type solution to work, the structure of businesses itself has to evolve. The very formality that Fmail seeks to get rid of is an important aspect of working in organizations. The stakes of improper communication are low in informal groups, but in businesses, where people communicate across levels of hierarchy, and across organizational boundaries, the stakes are high. The blocked, formal, approach of business email is ideal for this sort of communication. Imagine sending emails without a subject line!
There is of course the necessity for on-going emergent communication, as well as for real time communication and collaboration. Business communication and collaboration software like IM, forums, and document collaboration serve this need. But merging them in all in a unified format may lead to a new kind of chaos.
The sporadic, ongoing, real-time, minimalistic communication that Facebook encourages might be suitable for informal groups, but work groups need to create voluminous and structured information (documents).
Undoubtedly, as the Facebook generation ages, and enters the workforce more and more, they will bring along with them expectations in terms of working styles and tools. However, this will be a gradual and long drawn out process, as structure of organizations evolves to accommodate these new tools. Tools in the meantime, will continue to become more and more social, but only with much caution, when business benefits have clearly been established.
Tools which strike the right balance between socialness and structure will be the winners.