Facebook announced it would offer @facebook.com e-mail addresses to its 500m members, as it unveiled a major expansion into messaging systems.
The upgrade to Facebook’s Messages service will put it in competition with browser-based e-mail services from Microsoft, Yahoo and Google and open up its service and users to e-mail from outside Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, told a news conference in San Francisco on Monday that the idea was to combine e-mail with instant messaging, texting and conversations in a seamless way, with e-mail becoming less important over time. “It will always be a part [of messaging] and maybe it can help push the way people do messaging more towards this kind of seamless, simple, real-time, immediate personal experience; that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Charlene Li, social media analyst at the Altimeter Group, said in a blog note that the new service represented a big step for Facebook: “For me, today represents the day when Facebook truly becomes a portal on the level of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL. It’s escaped the bounds of being just another social network,” she said.
Facebook thinks it can offer more personal and relevant messages as a social network, where communications can be easily filtered down to friends and friends of friends.
Mr Zuckerberg said messages from outside Facebook to users taking up the offer of @facebook.com e-mail addresses would go into an Other Messages folder until users chose to move them to their main inbox, partly to combat spam.
Within Facebook, messages will have no subject lines and the system is being modelled on instant-messaging chat to make it more like a conversation.
The company said it had expanded its infrastructure, and its Haystack service for sharing photos has been extended to cope with e-mail attachments.
Mr Zuckerberg scoffed at reports that Facebook Messages could be a Gmail killer and said Google had created a really good product. But his company plans to add IMAP support, a way of accessing e-mail that would potentially allow users to forward e-mails to Facebook from other webmail services such as Gmail, Microsoft’s Windows Live service and Yahoo Mail.
Such auto-forwarding allows easier switching to rival services and, with more than 500m users, Facebook represents a threat to the existing players.
Mr Zuckerberg said 4bn messages were already being sent a day and there were 350m active users of Messages. That compares with 363m users of Microsoft’s Windows Live Mail, 303m Yahoo Mail users and 171m Gmail users globally.