They said it wouldn't last -- e-mail, that is.
Crippled by a ceaseless deluge of spam and infected with computer viruses and malware, e-mail became the symbol of all that was wrong with technology. Then came texting and smartphones and teens with lightning-fast thumbs . . . and the attention spans of gnats. Analysts said that e-mail was dead. And the young generation agrees.
"It's too formal," declared Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg, announcing his company's new messaging service yesterday in San Francisco. E-mail "adds a lot friction and cognitive load" to communications, he thinks, which is why Facebook's new "Gmail killer" may help wean folks off e-mail, he argued. Methinks he doth protest too much.
In spite of the obits, e-mail is here to stay, and the major announcements this week from AOL and Facebook prove it. Indeed, e-mail may be making a comeback, even as leaders of the Facebook generation denounce it as old-fashioned.
Facebook announced Monday that it's rolling out a new messaging system, including chat, text messaging, status updates, and -- you guessed it -- e-mail. Some see it as competition for Gmail and Yahoo Mail. But Zuckerberg says it's really a way of bringing various messaging systems together in one place, so you don't have to remember and separately track how each of your friends prefers to be contacted.
In other words, if you usually communicate with co-workers via e-mail, Facebook's system will recognize that and send quick notes and messages to those people's e-mail accounts. It will also recognize that you usually parlay with your girlfriend through text messages and only send your love missives to her that way. Plus there will be none of that onerous subject-line stuff any more.
Zuckerberg also promised that Facebook's system will be in real time -- no delayed e-mails about conference calls or meetings you've already missed. But of course, the biggest draw will be that users get their own @facebook.com e-mail address -- at last!
But rather than making life easier, this system may simply overwhelm users.
There are already 4 billion messages a day sent across Facebook, according to the company. Adding outside texts and e-mail addresses for the system's 500 million users could dwarf those numbers, though Zuckerberg said there will be filters based on friendship status to help keep the noise down. Initially, it won't synchronize with most outside e-mail systems, although the company is working on such a feature, and they declined to say how much storage space would be allowed for free.
Still, it's an ambitious plan, since Facebook intends to store all of your messaging history (or "conversations") for you, warts and all -- which may not be such a good idea given the company's on-again-off-again privacy and security problems. If the company doesn't handle privacy properly, an @facebook.com address could quickly become the essence of uncool, just as the popular @aol.com domain name became the epitome of square.
To its credit, AOL fully realizes it made mistakes in the past. So its new messaging service won't integrate everything into one indistinguishable stream of messages. Appropriately called Project Phoenix, AOL's new Web based e-mail program will focus on keeping things separate but equal within the same screen, under different headings for text and chat messages. It will, however, aggregate all your e-mail from various accounts (public, private, and professional) into one e-mail in-box.
And an AOL spokesperson promised that unlike other services, it would be easy for non-technical users to make it work.
Not open to the public until early next year, AOL's Phoenix will also have a few convenience features. A "quick bar" allows you to instantly fire off responses, whether the original message was an IM, text or e-mail. You can also send free SMS messages (as you can from Google Voice). Attachments (up to 25 MB and unlimited storage) will also appear as thumbnails in a right-hand preview pane; an address in a message invokes MapQuest directions. For security, you can set it to only preview attachments from friends in your contact list.
AOL has also addressed its Achilles Heel: the stigma of an @aol.com address. The company will offer new addresses from alternate domains, including games.com, wow.com, and love.com. However, it won't tap your Twitter and Facebook feeds -- yet. Still, if AOL does make it truly easy to collect all of one's e-mail accounts and make it manageable, it could attract a lot of small business users and professionals.
But with both of these new services, e-mail is still fundamentally the big draw.
Filters, new laws, and more sophisticated users have largely stemmed the flood of spam. Sure, there's still plenty of it out there (I get over 500 messages a day, and much of it is junk), but for all the buzz and hyperbole about Twitter and social networking, that stuff isn't the same as e-mail.
If you want to really do work, file a report, send a memo, trade spreadsheets, or castigate your coworkers, only e-mail will do. So the real distraction today isn't e-mail, it's all of those text messages and countless thumbs-up "Like" comments. Adding that into my e-mail stream may not be a good thing.
So far, it looks as if Facebook doesn't realize this. Google Wave, a failed attempt to bring everything -- Twitter feeds, e-mail, Facebook comments, Flickr photos, geotagged images and more -- into one threaded universal in-box quickly devolved into a digital rat's nest. Why? Because it included all those pesky texts from your friends standing in the grocery store line. It became unwieldy and unbearable, so Google killed it.
Although both AOL and Facebook are cognizant of Google Wave's shortcomings, they could be destined to repeat them.
Putting everything in one bucket, no matter how smart that bucket is, isn't necessarily a good idea. When these media are kept apart, it gives me the flexibility to, say, ignore Facebook for days (or spend the afternoon commenting on all my friends' posts while I procrastinate). You can forget about Twitter for a week and then sign back on without feeling like you've missed a thing -- you probably haven't. There aren't enough filters in the world to mimic this kind of control. Throwing it all at us in one place is more likely to lead to a compete attention deficit meltdown or obsessive texting, which will lead to more obsessive texting from others, and so on, and so on.
Of course, we don't have to be sucked into this Silicon Valley nightmare. As one television executive reminded me, there's already a terrifically interactive communications system that allows you to converse with real people in real time. It's called the telephone. And I think I'll start using it more often.