Facebook offers new communication tool

As widely anticipated, Facebook on Monday unveiled a new e-mail service, but that was only part of the story. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also introduced Facebook Messages, a unified messaging system that will channel all communications, including e-mails, text messages, and chat, through a single Facebook interface.

The new service could greatly expand the reach of Facebook, turning it from just a social network into the #1 online communications hub.

Until now, Facebook has offered an internal messaging tool and online chat but not a formal e-mail service. Most members rely on Gmail, AOL, Yahoo Mail or one of the other third party e-mail services to communicate beyond the closed Facebook environment. Now, members can use Facebook Messages to consolidate all communications, whether internal or external.

The new service will encourage users to sign up for an e-mail address ending in @Facebook.com. Although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was careful not to present the new platform as an “e-mail killer”, it’s clear that Facebook Messages could make people less dependent on the traditional e-mail portals.

In addition to providing a central point of communication, Facebook Messages will also offer users what Mr. Zuckerberg called a “social inbox” that will prioritize messages based on the usual Facebook hierarchy – friends, friends of friends, then other contacts. Conversation histories will also be grouped, so users can see every communication to and from a particular individual, whether it’s via text, chat or e-mail.

Mr. Zuckerberg disclosed that the idea for Facebook Messages came from younger users, who have largely abandoned e-mail for the many forms of instant messaging, whether web-based or mobile. He also pointed out that more than 350 million Facebook members are already using its messaging service, exchanging more than 4 billion messages every day.

As with everything else that Facebook does, there are bound to be some privacy concerns. Members are being asked to put yet more information in Facebook’s hands, and a unified messaging system is potentially more valuable to advertisers and other third parties. However, analysts have often acknowledged the need for some kind of integration tool for the various ways that we now communicate online.

The new system will be rolled out over the next few months, beginning with a small group of invitation-only users.

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