Facebook users, a new e-mail address is heading your way.
As many expected, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new messaging system at a San Francisco event today, but be careful before calling it "e-mail."
"We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail," Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg said current e-mail systems, which require "subject" lines and other formalities, have too much "weight and friction."
Facebook's new system takes the speed and ease of real time instant messaging and chat applications, but stores the conversation history and presents messages in a manner similar to an e-mail service.
As part of the new service, which will initially be invitation-only, Facebook users will receive an @Facebook.com e-mail address. But Zuckerberg emphasized that the new application is much more than e-mail.
"This is not an e-mail killer, this is a messaging system that includes e-mail as one part of it," he said.
Zuckerberg said about 350 million Facebook members (out of the site's total population of 500 million members) use the current messaging features on Facebook. In total, he said, the site's users generate about 4 million private messages a day. The new system is meant to capitalize on that quickly growing aspect of the social networking service.
Taking its cue from high school students who already favor text messaging and Facebook chats over e-mail, Zuckerberg said the new service will be faster, more personalized and will encompass all kinds of communication enabled by Facebook (such as instant messages, text messages and Facebook messages).
Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook director of engineering who joined Zuckerberg for the announcement, said the new messaging service offers a three-tiered approach to e-mail inboxes.
At the top of the system is a "social inbox," which culls messages from Facebook friends only or friends of friends. A second inbox stores messages that are less important, but still valuable (for example, alumni newsletters, airfare alerts, messages from acquaintances and other kinds of correspondence). The third box is for junk mail.
Bosworth said friends and organizations who are not on Facebook will still be able to send Facebook users mail through their @Facebook.com accounts, but users will have the flexibility to restrict all mail to friends or friends of friends only (and have extraneous e-mail bounce out of the system).
He also said Facebook users can manually adjust their mail settings so that non-Facebook friends can still send messages to their social inboxes. Users can block specific Facebook friends or friends of friends from sending e-mail to their social inbox.
"We don't expect anyone to wake up tomorrow and say 'I'm going to shut down my Yahoo mail account or Gmail account and switch exclusively to Facebook,'" Zuckerberg said. But he added that over the next few months or couple of years, more people might choose to communicate through Facebook e-mail because it's a simpler and faster application.
David Hallerman, an analyst with eMarketer, said he doesn't see Facebook replacing Gmail or other popular e-mail services.
"It's not going to be an alternative, it's going to be an add on," he said. "The trend for years now is for people to have multiple e-mail accounts for different uses and different purposes."