Hands on with the Facebook facelift

Facebook is rolling out a new redesign to its home page intended to make it easier to find and use its most popular features. I've been running it the past few days, and mostly I like it.

The Facebook Blog has redesign details. The most obvious change: update notifications move from the bottom-right of the screen to the top left. That puts the notifications in the most choice real estate of the home page.

Next to the notifications is a message icon; when you click it, you can access your incoming messages and compose a new one. Previously, you had to leave the home screen to compose a message, but now you can do it directly from the home screen.

Front and center at the top of the page: A search box, which demonstrates the increasing importance Facebook places on search. I'll come back to that later.

The Home and Profile links are in the top-right corner, along with the Account menu, where you can change your privacy settings and log out.

Facebook revised the left column to include a list of online friends, to encourage chat. The list is limited to the people you chat with most frequently. Your best friend is on the list, and not the creepy guy you went to college with whom you wish you had never friended.

Also on the left column: A place to bookmark your most frequently used applications and games. You'll never be far away from your FarmVille farm.

The changes are subtle, so much so that when I first noticed them, I shrugged and said, "So what?" They looked pretty minor to me. But after using then a while, I grew to like them. The most useful Facebook tools are closer to the surface, easier to use and interact with.

But the new layout isn't perfect; one of my favorite Facebook tools got harder to use. Facebook lets you divide your friends and pages into lists, and then access the news feed for each list independently of updates from all your other friends and pages. I use that feature a lot -- I have a friends list called "Fav," which contains the people and pages I'm most interested in following.

Previously, you could access your lists directly from the home page. But now it seems you have to click "Friends" in the top-left corner of the page, and then your lists appear below the "Friends" link. No big deal -- just one extra click -- but it's one more click than I had to make before. I need to look into whether there's a way to move my Fav list back to the home page.

Overall, though, I like this redesign a lot. Too often, application vendors come out with updates solely to add new features. It's nice to see Facebook coming out with an update solely for the purpose of making the service cleaner and more usable.

Facebook is rolling out the update in phases; as of last night, 80% of users had received it, according to a company spokeswoman.

In other Facebook news -- or, rather, rumor -- TechCrunch reports that Facebook is working on the sooper-seekrit "Project Titan," which would turn Facebook messaging into a fully-featured Webmail client. Your e-mail address would be your customized vanity URL @facebook.com -- for example, I would be mitch.wagner@facebook.com.

The best part: The Facebook mail upgrade would make Facebook compliant with the POP and IMAP protocols, meaning you could use your favorite mail client -- Apple Mail, Microsoft Outlook, whatever -- to access your Facebook messages.

I love Facebook messages because they make it easy to get in touch with anyone. You may not know the current e-mail address for people you haven't talked with in a while. But they're probably on Facebook, which makes it easy for you to get back in touch with them.

But I also hate Facebook messages, because I have a very efficient system in place for dealing with e-mail, and Facebook messages break that system.

Please, Facebook, make this rumor true.

Interestingly, Paul Buchheit, who created Gmail, is now at Facebook; Buchheit co-founded FriendFeed, which Facebook acquired. But Buchheit is not working on Facebook mail, according to Reuters.

Facebook declined to comment on the Project Titan reports.

While Facebook beefs up search (I told you I'd come back to that) and, reportedly, e-mail; search and e-mail giant Google is reportedly planning to add status updates to Gmail, making Gmail more like Facebook and Twitter. I can't get excited by this idea; I already have Facebook and Twitter; why do I need Gmail status updates? It's possible I'm missing something; supposedly the announcement is later today, we'll see what Google has to say then.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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