What Facebook Messages Is Really After

It’s not email. That’s what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at last week’s introduction of Facebook Messages. He called it “a modern messaging system,” and half-jokingly added that the next generation of users would gradually drift away from email. But what Facebook is really trying to establish with its unified communications hub is presence management, which is why Facebook Messages feels at least as much like IM as it does email.

Driven by enterprise-oriented companies like Microsoft, IBM/Lotus and later Google, email evolved with the addition of PIM features like contact management and calendar integration. Those companies, along with consumer-focused ones like Yahoo and AOL, added spam filtering and began to integrate other communication types and transports, including instant messaging and voice. At the same time, the corporate companies built up collaboration facilities, beginning in the ’80s with Lotus Notes, and more recently with services like Microsoft SharePoint and Google’s ill-fated Wave.

But Facebook is moving in a completely different direction.

Intimacy and Immediacy

Facebook Messages focuses on intimacy and immediacy at the expense of formality, flexibility and history. Yes, Facebook’s social inbox pulls in different message types, but it weaves them into a thread that’s based on the sender rather than the topic, similar to IM or texting on a smartphone. To encourage immediate and recurring use and response, Facebook Messages eliminates subject headers and address look-up. Inbox folders are Friends, Other and Junk. That’s it.

And the approach isn’t aimed at only consumer (rather than professional) usage. Rather, it de-emphasizes important consumer communications like billing, newsletters, one-to-many emailing and forwarding. That’s because it’s more important in the long run for Facebook to be its users’ launchpad for personal communications and presence management than it is for the feature to be the management tool for all communications.

The Real Objective: Presence Management

By presence management, I mean the tools and platform a person uses to announce his availability to other people (and, potentially, to ‘bots and services). A powerful, unified presence manager would also enable the user to express how he’d like to communicate, and to manipulate that “how” and “when” availability to different types of contacts. Early examples of presence management tools were AOL’s IM and chat (though Buddy Lists didn’t make that availability very flexible) and Caller ID. Today’s email and social network apps also contain such tools.

If Facebook establishes Messages as a user’s primary tool to manage presence across multiple communications vehicles, it would be an incredibly sticky app, with huge customer lock-in potential. Facebook contacts are beginning to play an increasingly important role across communications. That’s one reason Facebook doesn’t want users to share them. Facebook Groups could be a step towards a presence-aware buddy list. For instance, after 6 p.m. a user could make himself instantly available for family, but available to co-workers only via email.

How Should Competitors React?

Email’s not going away, for many reasons. Even teenagers want their online shopping receipts, and likely won’t route newsletters to their Friends inbox.

Microsoft understands this, and the difference between corporate and personal email. It should continue to build collaboration into Outlook, bridges between Outlook and Hotmail, and make sure its Messenger presence infrastructure interoperates with Facebook’s.

Gmail is an extensible apps platform, and a Gmail address is a hub domain for non-communications apps. Google’s aggressiveness in voice communications might give it an advantage over Facebook in mobile presence management.

Yahoo and AOL need to integrate voice communications deeply, and push hard to get their IM apps used on smartphones, with ties as strong as possible to SMS.

At one point, carriers like Verizon and AT&T looked like they could play a role in presence management, or establish their address book as a user’s most critical one. But they’ve built little off those bases.

Question of the week

How can companies compete with Facebook Messages?
Relevant Analyst
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David Card

VP Research Gigaom Research

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5 Comments Subscribers to comment

  1. I think that by focus on the user needs (sending a message instead of sending an email, sending a picture, etc), Facebook is trying to obsolete an Internet vision seen as layers of protocols.

    They provide simple but straightforward experience.
    In that way, they manage to make GMail feel like an old tool relying on IMAP, POP, SMTP, things of the past Internet. That alone is remarkable.

    1. I think Mark Zuckerberg would agree with you, Mickaël. I should have added “simplicity” to my list of intimacy and immediacy. Nerd that he is, at the press conference he said something about lightening the “cognitive load” to encourage usage.

      Do you think Messages is one of Clayton Christensen’s low-end disruptive technologies where simple makes it “good enough” to unseat the incumbents?

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