Facebook service aims to centralize messages

Revamp integrates chats, calls, e-mail

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By Barbara Ortutay and Michael Liedtke
Associated Press / November 16, 2010

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SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook unveiled a messaging platform yesterday that takes aim at one of the Internet’s first applications, e-mail.

Though chief executive Mark Zuckerberg did not go as far as declaring e-mail dead, he sees the four-decade-old technology as secondary to more seamless, faster ways of communicating, such as text messages and chats. In other words, Facebook is betting that today’s high school students are on to something.

“We don’t think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail,’’ Zuckerberg said at an event in San Francisco.

The new platform, which will be rolled out to users in the coming months, integrates cellphone texts, chats, e-mail, and the existing Facebook messages.

It seeks to bring together all these different forms of communication in one inbox, centered on the people sending it rather than the type of technology they use.

Facebook will hand out e-mail addresses — mostly to make it easier to communicate with people who are not on Facebook.

“If we do a good job, some people will say this is the way that the future will work,’’ Zuckerberg said.

By making e-mail part of its communications hub, Facebook escalates its duel with Web search leader Google Inc., which shook up online communications 6 1/2 years ago with its Gmail service. Google has also said it will roll out more social-networking features to counter Facebook’s growing popularity.

Zuckerberg dismissed notions that the service, code-named Project Titan, is the “Gmail killer’’ it’s been dubbed by the press.

At the same time, Zuckerberg said he thinks more people will forgo lengthy e-mail conversations in favor of shorter, more immediate chats.

The first Internet e-mail system arrived in the early 1970s, and it has been an integral part of most people’s lives for at least two decades. Though e-mail is still a primary form of communication for older adults, recent studies suggest this is not the case for young people. Text messaging has surpassed face-to-face contact, e-mail, phone calls, and instant messaging as the primary form of communication for US teens, according to a 2009 survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Facebook sees its messaging service as a way to deepen its connection with the more than 500 million users of its network. If it can persuade its vast audience to become faithful users of its messaging service, Facebook conceivably will have more opportunities to sell advertising that caters to their likes.

That ambition also could heighten the privacy issues surrounding Facebook as it becomes more deeply ingrained in people’s lives and its computers become a treasure trove of personal information.