11.15.10

Don't Ditch Your Gmail

With Facebook revealing details of its new messaging service, Tom Weber squares it off against Google in a 10-category smackdown to determine who will control the future of email.

Facebook, after great anticipation over its “Gmail killer,” is finally showing what its new messaging system will look like. And Mark Zuckerberg et al. adamantly emphasize one thing: You shouldn’t compare Facebook’s new approach to Gmail. 
 

But we’re going to do it anyway. A head-to-head comparison with Gmail is the best way to understand Facebook’s new messaging features, which will be rolled out over the next few months. (And let’s face it, both companies have a lot at stake, as The Daily Beast’s David Kirkpatrick explains.) To get past the hype and give you a better handle on whether Facebook is about to become your ultimate communications hub, The Daily Beast decided to square-off Gmail and Facebook in 10 critical categories.
 

Before we get into our scorecard, though, it’s worth noting that the new features Facebook is rolling out represent more than just an amped-up email system in the vein of Gmail or webmail leader Yahoo, which by some estimates owns 44 percent of the market. Facebook is unabashedly making a bid to reshape digital communications beyond the email paradigm and once again changing notions about privacy along the way.
 

Problem is, historically those kinds of efforts haven’t worked out that well. Google itself ran into resistance when it came to some of Gmail’s more radical features—such as the lack of email folders—eventually forcing the search giant to cave to users’ will.
 

Now Facebook wants to mash up all of your communications, including text messages, emails, instant-message chats and Facebook messages—into one big ever-present message stream. And oh, by the way, it’s out to abolish email staples like subject lines and “bcc:ed” addressees along the way.
 

Not sure that makes sense? Tough, says Facebook—you’re too square to understand. Indeed, a major subtext of CEO Zuckerberg’s presentation was that email is for old folks. “We don’t think a modern messaging system is going to be email,” he said. The kids these days, says Zuckerberg, do most of their communicating via Facebook anyway, so they’ll get on board without worrying about all those old legacy email trappings. (And he may well have a point—but meanwhile, plenty of the supposed squares out there not only use email, but they’ve also got lots of disposable income and are attractive to advertisers.)
 

Based on the current Gmail system and the details given out by Facebook so far, let the great email war begin:
 

A major subtext of CEO Zuckerberg’s presentation was that email is for old folks.

PHILOSOPHY: Since Gmail first rolled out in 2004, it has pushed two big intertwined concepts: Users should have vast amounts of mail storage space, and they shouldn’t throw anything out. The first aspect helped propel Gmail into a hit product; the second has always been a little iffy. 
 

By contrast, Facebook’s philosophy says that you care more about your friends than anything else—that you want to get communications from them instantly, and check everything else once or twice a day. Specifically, the approach argues that you want to keep in touch with friends through a unified system that pulls text messages, chats, and emails together and delivers them together wherever you happen to be at the moment. If you’re on the go, that means alerts on your phone. If you’re signed on to Facebook on the Web, that means a chat window.
 

In the past, Google’s efforts to get users to change their messaging behavior haven’t gone smoothly. Gmail pushed the “save everything” idea that it rolled out without a “delete” button. (Eventually it had to add one.) That lesson is Facebook’s challenge: Even if users want to keep in touch with their friends, do they really want to abolish distinctions between emails and chats? Advantage: Google.  

STORAGE SPACE: Speaking of vast room for your messages. Gmail offers 7.5 gigabytes and continues to expand the space available for free. It’s hard to remember now, but when Gmail first appeared, “Inbox Full” was a dreaded error message for millions of emailers—and the generous size of the Gmail inbox helped it win fans. Facebook won’t say how much space it will offer, instead telling users that they’re unlikely to run into problems if they aren’t abusing the system. So Gmail wins this one on Facebook’s forfeit. Advantage: Google.  

PRIORITIZATION: With the volume of email pouring into inboxes everywhere constantly climbing, any system that pushes the messages that users care about to the top is likely to win loyalty. Gmail recently added a feature called “Priority Inbox” as “important” or “everything else.” The system makes good guesses at what’s important but still requires some training. But Facebook has a lot of information about who you consider important—after all, it’s the keeper of your so-called social graph. Advantage: Facebook.  

SPAM FILTERING: If having crucial messages pushed to the top is useful, so is having the worthless ones weeded out completely. Gmail’s spam filter has a sterling reputation. But Facebook is promising world-class spam filtering, and again, thanks to its deep knowledge about who you have connections to, it should be able to deliver. If anything, Facebook’s filtering might be a little too good, biasing its system in favor of your Facebook friends above all else. Advantage: Facebook.  

ORGANIZATION: When you’re flooded with so many messages, how do you stay organized and find the information you need later on? This is one of the more radical elements of the new Facebook approach, and it will take time to see if it flies with users. Zuckerberg says using subject lines for messages adds “a lot of friction and cognitive load.” (Got it?) So Facebook’s approach will dump subject lines and more broadly, the notion of discrete topic-based interactions. Instead, messages will be organized entirely around the sender. All of your communications with, say, your cousin Joe will be organized into one long stream, regardless of whether they’re email or chat messages.
 

Google tried getting fancy here too, ignoring the familiar convention of folders to keep mail organized and telling users to just archive all their messages and trust in the power of Google’s search box to find what you needed. Eventually Google relented and added labels, which serve the same function as folders.
 

OK, we admit, even if the kids like it, we’re too square for this one. When we’re going on vacation we want to keep the airline confirmation, the restaurant recommendation from our friend, and the note from the concierge all in one place. Advantage: Google.

PRIVACY: In a straightforward sense, there’s likely to be little difference between the two services in this regard. Both Gmail and Facebook clearly acknowledge that private communications should only be accessible by the user. (Chinese hackers aside.)
 

But the new Facebook approach has the potential to affect privacy nonetheless. That’s because even more than with Gmail, the system’s conversation model encourages saving every last message. “Five years from now, you’re going to have this full, rich history of all the communications you have with your friends,” Zuckerberg said when explaining how messages are organized by sender, not subject. Another Facebook exec went further: “Imagine you had [stored] every conversation you’ve ever had with your girlfriend.”
 

We’ll go you one better, Facebook: Then imagine you break up bitterly, and your onetime soulmate has an easily accessible database of everything you’ve ever said in an online chat or an email. They wouldn’t use an offhand comment against you, would they? We’re not sure we want to find out. Advantage: Google.  

APPEARANCE: When Gmail hit the scene, most people were accustomed to their inbox looking like Microsoft Outlook or a variation on that theme. Gmail certainly feels familiar now, though some might consider it a stretch to say it’s aesthetically pleasing. Facebook’s messaging looks like, well, like the rest of Facebook. It’s heavy on white space and the type can seem tiny to the eyes of the over-21. Call it a toss-up. Advantage: Neither.  

PRODUCTIVITY INTEGRATION: Just got an email arranging an appointment? The obvious response is to click into your calendar and block out the time. Gmail excels at this kind of thing, tying in directly with Google’s Calendar product and even prompting you to create an appointment when it notices a time in the email message. By contrast, the word “calendar” didn’t merit a mention in Facebook’s messaging overview (though the company is linking up to Microsoft’s Office Web Apps to make it easy to view message attachments in Word or Excel form). Advantage: Google.  

CHAT INTEGRATION: Facebook is talking up the convergence of its seamless messaging big-time. The way its approach will break down the distinctions between an instant-message conversation and an email dialog are a centerpiece of the system. That’s great news for users of Facebook’s chat.
 

But voice conversations and video chats aren’t part of the Facebook upgrade. The company said only that it will look at those options in the future. Gmail, meanwhile, has deeply integrated not only its text chat system but also video chats and Google Voice calls into its email. Advantage: Google.  

COOL FACTOR: Even though Gmail accounts for only 15 percent of the U.S. webmail market by some measures, it has somehow managed to earn the reputation as the service to beat. In a culture where digital devotees dismiss those with an AOL.com email address as uncool and Yahoo.com users as boring, a Gmail.com address has become the jacket you can wear anywhere, to a party with your friends or on a job interview. If it isn’t cool, it’s certainly not uncool.
 

Facebook users will be getting Facebook.com addresses as part of the upgrade. Can Facebook hope to achieve that go-anywhere status? Given how friend-centric the service is, it’s tough to imagine. (Would you feel comfortable sending a resume—or receiving one—from a Facebook.com address?) Yet Facebook has an undeniable level of buzz; showing you’re an active participant can be shorthand for saying, “Yes, I get social media.” Advantage: Too Soon to Tell.  

BOTTOM LINE: In our scorecard, Gmail edges out Facebook. But when a new technology departs radically from established paradigms, predicting success can be tricky. Facebook has 500 million users going for it and a willingness to think outside the box. Users may fall in love with some of these new features once they get their hands on them, so who knows? Maybe some years down the road we’ll be waxing nostalgic for messages with subject lines.

Thomas E. Weber covers technology for The Daily Beast. He is a former bureau chief and columnist at The Wall Street Journal and was editor of the award-winning SmartMoney.com. Follow him on Twitter.