Facebook Messages: Why This Could be Even Bigger than Anyone Thinks

It’s hard to imagine that anything Facebook does, let alone something on the scale of Facebook Messages, could be underappreciated, but I believe that’s the case here.  Facebook Messages could be “the next big thing.”  I’m not prepared to anoint Messages as such, yet; I haven’t even been blessed with being one of the platform’s first users and thus haven’t had the opportunity to see if the reality is remotely in the league of the promise.  But the promise is huge.  Facebook has an enormous opportunity to capitalize on several intertwining trends.

  • Email ceased being a productivity tool a decade ago or more.  We are overwhelmed by the volume of email and have few good tools for harnessing it.  My friend and former colleague Bill Kirwin, the godfather of TCO, has spent good portions of the last few years focused on this issue alone.
  • Email has become the bearer of malicious payloads as much or more than it has been the source of valuable information.  Simply put, without email, viruses, phishing and spam are much less prevalent.
  • At the same time, a new generation of users views email as the platform of last resort.  If you ask a teenager today what they use email for (and I have a focus group of two of my own), if you really parse through the answer, they use email to communicate with old people.  The new generation uses Facebook, IM, Skype, Twitter (maybe) and texting as more immediate, personal and relevant forms of communication.  Email has been forced upon them.
  • The prominence of email has made us slaves to Outlook and the inbox.  We have the appearance of productivity without really being productive.  We have the appearance of communications without really sharing anything valuable.  We have the appearance of progress but that progress is fragile and is broken the moment the next person in the thread doesn’t click reply.
  • Email is directed to people, not communities of interest.  The maintenance of email communities (groups or mailing lists) is slow if not glacial, incomplete and organizationally driven, not user-driven.
  • As we move to increasingly mobile platforms, we need a communications system that blends both the comprehensiveness of email with the urgency of texting.  Today they co-exist uncomfortably on the device.  Unifying them is an opportunity, if not an imperative.

For all these reasons and more, a replacement for the email platform is necessary.  It’s not like there haven’t been attempts.  Ray Ozzie spent much of his pre-Microsoft career trying to introduce new platforms (including Notes and Groove).  He was met with limited success at best and his tenure at Microsoft will not be remembered by progress on this front.  Google with great fanfare introduced Wave, only to abandon the platform, retreat and introduce Buzz, whose market impact has been approximately zero.  When Google, Microsoft and Lotus/IBM fail at something, you realize the enormity of the challenge.

So why might Facebook succeed where these others have failed?

  • Taking a page from the Microsoft playbook, Facebook is adopting an “embrace and extend” solution to the problem.  Rather than introducing an entirely new platform and hoping to migrate its users to the new approach, over time, Facebook instead has taken the email metaphor — the installed base, if you will — and has added capabilities that bring the new forms of communication under the email umbrella.  If you’re an email user, you’ll find the approach familiar.  And if you’re a next-generation “Facebook communicator,” you’ll find the new platform is familiar and extends your capabilities in interesting ways.  If Facebook can truly blend the email world and the IM/text world to the benefit of both, this is a massive accomplishment.  I still say “if” because the requirements of the two environments don’t lend themselves obviously to a merging but if Facebook has done a good enough job here, then they are well-poised to realize the kind of success I’m positing here.  Note, “good enough” is usually the market requirement for massive success.  In fact, in a Gresham’s Law-like way (I have to leverage my college economics major every once in a while), good enough has usually been better than great in the technology space so in fact some of Messages’ shortcomings can and should be overlooked.  View someone saying “Messages, while interesting, is not as good as ‘x'” as a success indicator, not a shortcoming.
  • With over 500 million users (probably 600 million by now), Facebook is one of the rare platforms that has bridged the two user groups with their distinct communications styles.  Email is an activity of the old (get over it, friends!), texting is an activity of the young.  But Facebook is actively used by nearly half of all Americans (and even greater percentages of people in other countries).  This gives them a bully pulpit from which to reach both categories with neutral footing.
  • Facebook itself has been responsible for a change in the way we communicate.  No, they didn’t invent the status update but they’ve certainly been the largest beneficiary of it and have evolved it in meaningful ways.  And this is not just a consumer-driven phenomenon.  Hardly a day goes by when I don’t have a conversation about what I’d loosely call “Facebook for the enterprise.”  They’ve already evolved the way we communicate which gives them a great opportunity to continue to evolve it while subsuming existing forms of communications.
  • It’s frequently the case in the technology industry that a successful platform follows a platform that failed by overreaching.  Windows 3.x was a step back from OS/2.  The Internet was actually a step back from many more specialized platforms that sought to do so much more than “just” hyperlink.  Thus, Messages, following a litany of failed “groupware” approaches and major platform initiatives (Sharepoint, Wave) has the requisite market conditioning and, perhaps this time, the market timing.  (I don’t want to hear from you that Sharepoint isn’t a failed platform.  It has certainly achieved some degree of ubiquity but that’s more a testament to Microsoft’s tenacity and doesn’t really reflect its market impact or certainly its leadership.)
  • It’s the subject for another upcoming blog post but I don’t think social capabilities have been understood and embraced nearly as much as they’re going to be.  “Social” is more than status updates and tweets.  It transforms application categories and the way users relate to each other, and the communities, companies, suppliers and friends with whom they interact.  Adding social capabilities to the communication platform in a fundamental way is going to happen, and Facebook has as good a vision as anyone and is better-positioned than anyone to make that happen.

For all these reasons, I’m excited by Facebook Messages.  We need a new platform that blends the urgency of texting and IM with the familiarity and functionality of email.  Messages is the leading contender to do just that.  Can they fail?  They certainly have ample opportunity, and track record to do that.  Their last attempt at a “game changer” — Beacon — didn’t end well.  Because I correctly identified Twitter in a February 2008 research note (“Twitter:  The Most Important Platform You’ve Never Heard Of), I’m often asked “what’s the next big thing.”  Wave, no.  Foursquare, no.  FriendFeed, no.  We don’t have one of these a year.  Messages?  I’m not prepared to declare it “the next big thing,” but it’s the first thing in years that I think has that potential.