In the beginning — waaaay back 10 years or so before the Internet — there were the dial-up online services — The Source, CompuServe and America Online (aka AOL). Among other things, they offered an email product that allowed users to communicate with almost anybody in the world via something called the Internet.
Keep in mind that the Internet, up until then, had been a network used mainly by scientists and academics. The World Web showed up much later, with the creation of the Mosaic browser in 1993.
The Source, CompuServe and AOL eventually swallowed each other up, leaving AOL as the last one standing. To early users, it was the entire online experience, and people used AOL and the Internet interchangeably. In the mid 1990s, CompuServe and AOL tried to maintain their positions as the gateway, but once people realized a single click could take them to any site in the world, that was a lost cause.
Ever since then, various web sites have sought to be “all things to all people.” A few — notably Yahoo! and Google — have come close, integrating search, news, email and instant messaging. But sooner or later, another player arrives to dilute the market further. Google has made several attempts to break into the social media message-oriented market, with the most recent entry being Buzz, but it hasn’t caught fire. Yahoo’s entry seems to be stuck in the starting box as well.
For the moment, Hitwise tells us that Facebook has passed Google as the busiest site, but its messaging has been limited in that you could only send messages to other Facebook users. For a while now, rumors have circulated that Facebook plans to roll out an enhancement to its message system, perhaps adding pop email. Some have dubbed this the “Gmail killer,” which is more a compliment to Gmail than anything else. But I don’t expect it to matter much because:
- Everybody already has email, and there’s no compelling reason to change. It may well be that we all end up with a Facebook mail account, but I don’t see it changing the way we use Facebook much.
- Corporate email won’t switch to Facebook. Many companies have banned Facebook because people waste so much time on the site, so they’re certainly not going to give up their branded corporate email addresses for Facebook, even if employees can use the Facebook mail product without visiting the site.
- The typical reaction to newly introduced add-ons these days is for people to enroll with a shrug and a yawn. That’s been the case with Buzz, as well with everybody’s IM services. Many of us now use multi-protocol IM clients (Pidgin, Digsby, Meebo, eBuddy etc.) to accommodate all the platforms people use. Mine usually runs with Yahoo!, AOL, MSN, GTalk and Facebook accounts running at the same time. The contacts all show up in a single window, and I’m rarely even aware of which account someone else is using, just as I don’t much care whether somebody’s email address is AOL, MSN, Gmail or a corporate server.
Facebook has come closer than any site since the old AOL to becoming the entry level gateway to the Internet, but there’s no reason to believe that the Facebook stairway reaches to the sky. None ever has. My very subjective sense of things is that people will, at some point, want to simplify the way they communicate rather than continue to add redundant services.