The rise and rise of Facebook – Part 1 – the demise of webmail

When I was a kid, I played a game called Monster Mash.  You basically created a Playdoh monster and then pitted your monster against your opponent’s monster by rolling the dice and taking pot shots at smooshing one another.  I really did think it was quite superb, which is probably why I’m enjoying watching the Googles and Facebooks of the world take the gloves off.  This post is the first in a series that looks at the goliath that Facebook is becoming, and who’s getting smooshed along the way.

Our subject for the first part of this series: Is Facebook going to be the death of webmail?

As far as I can tell, people have been talking about this possibility since late 2007, but there are two new pieces of information that make all the conjecture a little more solid.  The first thing:  In January 2011, a report from ComScore revealed that total web email usage was down by 8% in the United States over the past year, with teenagers ditching email at the highest rate.

The statistics really are quite startling.  For those users between the ages of 12 and 17, usage was down by a colossal 49%. Usage was down 1% among 18 to 24-year-olds, and 18% among 25 to 35-year-olds. Usage was also down significantly in older age groups – 8% among 35 to 44-year-olds and 12% among 45-54-year-olds.

The second thing:  This survey was completed just a couple of weeks before Facebook launched its new messaging system that combines email, instant messaging and text messaging, meaning that everyone who’s on Facebook will have access to an ‘@facebook.com’ address for mail.

There are no prizes for guessing the rest of the story. The same survey also found that younger users are now spending more of their online time on social networks, representing just under 15% of all the time they spend online.  Here in Australia, we actually spend more time on Facebook each week than the Americans, according to a Nielsen report done in 2010.

Going even further than the personal user, due to the increased use of social tools both inside and outside corporate firewalls, and the changing demographics (i.e. within a few years majority of users entering the workforce would belong to the Facebook age and would continue to communicate with colleagues via Facebook and Twitter), Gartner predicts that by 2014 20% of business users will be using social networking services for communication instead of emails.

Deny, deny, deny

Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg denies that they’re trying to kill off free webmail providers, but there are signs of panic in the ranks, particularly at camp Google. When you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why knees are trembling:

Email by numbers:

  • Hotmail: 362 million users.
  • Yahoo!: 273 million users.
  • Gmail: 193 million users.
  • ‘Facebook.com’: Potentially 500 million users for its new messaging service.

Facebook’s new email system is modelled on instant messaging and on-line chat and will allow people to simplify their communications regardless of how they choose to do it with both Facebook users, and non-Facebook users. Texts, email or instant messages will all come into one feed and users can respond in any way they want. One person could text a friend, for example, who will see the message come up on their Facebook page instantly and respond via an instant message or email.

Zuckerberg says that his new toy isn’t email, but it can handle email, along with all the other different ways that you choose to communicate, creating a seamless integration that is bound to make life easier in a world where you sometimes feel like you need to create an account to use the bathroom.

With added Facebook love like entire conversation histories going back years being saved in users’ accounts and spam being completely filtered out, it really is a jab to the wobbly bits for any of the webmail providers. And it begs the question – why would you bother going outside that system to send email, when pretty much everyone that matters to you is inside.  If you’re anything like me – you have more friends on Facebook than you do in your address book.

Foot stamping and pouting

Even though Zuckerberg has donned his halo and a ‘Who, me?’ expression, the signs are that people at Google are not happy.

Google is now blocking a Facebook feature that allows users to automatically import Gmail contact data into Facebook, a move it says it made because Facebook refused to allow the export of contact and friend data from within user profiles.

Perhaps for Google though, all the foot stamping and pouting comes a little too late, because for a huge (and growing) percentage of the population, Facebook and the Internet have become synonymous, and Google is most useful for finding the people you know on Facebook.   Email is just sooooo 90s.   Sceptical?  Try to think of the last time someone who’s a friend of yours on Facebook sent you a joke or a link to something interesting via email…

Google’s answer (or should I say answers?) to the Facebook phenomenon have been a little pale.  In our next post, we’ll look at Orkut, Google Buzz, and the new Google Plus 1.