Facebook messaging throws a blow at Google

Facebook Messages could draw users from Gmail

Facebook's new messaging system may not be a Gmail killer, but it's definitely another blow in the growing battle between two Internet bigwigs.

Facebook took the wraps off what it's calling a modern messaging system on Monday. Facebook Messages is designed to handle the convergence of different kinds of messages -- Facebook messages, IMs, SMS and e-mail -- and bring them together under a single social umbrella.

The system also allows users to have a facebook.com email address, though it will work with other e-mail systems like Gmail and Yahoo.

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was adamant that it's not intended to replace e-mail, industry analysts say the new system will almost certainly draw some users away from Yahoo mail and Google's Gmail.

And Google simply can't be happy about it. Gmail, after all, is part of Google's tool bag of consumer apps. Maybe more importantly, Gmail is also a major part of Google's enterprise-focused apps -- and the company has been working hard to worm its way into the lucrative enterprise market.

Facebook's latest move comes amid a clash with Google that's unfolded over the last few months that has pittted the world's biggest Internet company and search giant against the world's largest social network, with more than 500 million users worldwide.

Last month, Facebook escalated the fight when it teamed up with Microsoft Bing and not Google to create a more social search. While no search competitor has made any real dent in Google's search market dominance, analysts noted that the social network, with its horde of users, might actuallky do some damage to Google by drawing people over to Bing.

"There is a battle for the future of the Web, and it is not about search engines, but about the social Web," said Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner.

Now, Facebook is offering its own e-mail service as part of a larger messaging system. And some of those who go with a facebook.com e-mail address just may give up their Gmail address.

"Power users won't abandon personal e-mail accounts such as Google Mail or Yahoo Mail," Valdes said in an interview. "The result is initially underwhelming, but then again, we are not the target audience -- we being corporate users or power users of personal e-mail. I expect Facebook Messaging to become an integral part of the average Facebook user's experience."

Still, Facebook Messaging won't be a Gmail killer anytime soon, Valdes said.

"In this release, they are not going for the body blow," he said. "Facebook Messaging in its current form is no Gmail killer, but over time Facebook will add to this, just like they are doing with other parts of their system. Their approach is a steady drumbeat of small blows aimed at Google and other competitors."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said the new messaging system does appear to be another item on the company's "grudge list".

"Well, they're already deadly foes," he said, referring to Facebook and Google. "While I don't think e-mail is a major direct contributor to either company's revenue stream, it is important to their business models. E-mail is much stickier than search or content. For Google, e-mail is the core of their Apps initiative."

Augie Ray, an analyst with Forrester, said Facebook messaging will certainly effect Google and its mail service.

"On the one hand, anything that makes communication easier and pulls attention away from Gmail is a Gmail killer," said Ray. "With the combination of individuals' social graph and Facebook's new functionality, Facebook will certainly succeed at pulling away some time and attention from Gmail and other e-mail clients."

But Gottheil doesn't think Facebook's messaging system will take a lot of users away from Google or Yahoo right away.

"Most people want to keep hanging out with their [online] buddies separate from their professional life and their real personal life," he added. "As I said, most people don't want to live exclusively in FaceBookLand, at least not after the first few weeks."

However, Gottheil and Valdes noted that as Facebook grows its messaging system, it could start drawing more people onto its system.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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