Facebook took the wraps off its new messaging system at an event today in San Francisco, and like engineering VP Andrew Bosworth said in his presentation, it’s basically instant messaging and presence with some e-mail functions layered on top.
It all sounds great–if you already spend most of your time in Facebook. If not, it won’t have much impact on your life.
The basic idea is that instead of having a bunch of different identities for different forms of communication–a 10-digit cell phone number for text messages, a couple of e-mail addresses, and various instant messaging handles on different systems–you’ll just have a single handle on Facebook. Log into Facebook, and you’ll be able to exchange messages with people in any of these formats.
Conversations will appear as threads on your Facebook profile, and will be archived permanently unless you manually delete them. Facebook will also use your social graph to determine whether messages should appear in the main Inbox (reserved for your Facebook friends), an Other box (used for less personal messages, like mailing lists and opt-in e-mails from companies you do business with), and Spam. Since Facebook probably has more data about your friends than Gmail does, this could be a nice improvement on what Google’s trying to do with Priority Inbox.
The system inherits some other capabilities from e-mail as well, like the ability to forward messages and send attachments. There’s no file size limit, which means you can send audio and video, although executables and other potentially harmful attachments will be blocked.
This is all goodness for Facebook users. But as a replacement for current communications systems, it’s not going to do the trick.
For instance, if one of your Facebook friends sends you an e-mail from her work e-mail, and Facebook doesn’t have that e-mail address registered, there’s no manual way to let the system know it’s actually from her.
When I talked to Bosworth at the event, he said that Facebook is focusing on IMAP support first to make it easy to connect to public e-mail systems like Google’s Gmail. Connecting to a corporate Exchange Server? Not so simple.
There’s also no voice story. Want to follow up the SMS you just sent with a voice call? You’re still going to have to pick up the phone and dial a number. Want to get your voicemail? Sorry, no dice.
I asked Bosworth and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during the event if voice was planned, and they hedged before basically admitting that they didn’t have time to build it in yet. Expect it to come later–they have to compete with Google Voice if they want to be taken seriously.
In other words, this is Facebook’s latest attempt to get hardcore users to spend even more time at the site. It’s not a Gmail killer (as Zuckerberg readily admitted) or even particularly revolutionary–you’ve been able to send SMS messages from Facebook for years. Unified communications is eventually coming, but this isn’t it.