Social networking software

Facebook Mail: 5 Questions About the Rumored Service

If Facebook launches a new e-mail service Monday, what would it look like? That's what had me scratching my head over the weekend.

So many Webmail services are out there already, and many of them are very popular, including Hotmail (400 million users), Yahoo Mail (300 million) and Gmail (170 million). What could Facebook offer to e-mail users that those services can't? Here are five things I'm wondering about the rumored Facebook Mail.

Social in the Facebook Mail Sidebar?

E-mail is inherently a social activity, which makes it a perfect fit, at least in theory, for Facebook. E-mail is all about communicating with people you know by sending and receiving messages and attachments. Will Facebook e-mail be able to help you sort and understand all that data flowing through your inbox in a new or original way?

Some services such as Xobni, the Microsoft Outlook sidebar add-on, have already provided a prototype for what a socially connected inbox might look like.

Xobni takes all the people to whom you send e-mail and creates a profile for each contact that includes their social networking profiles, contact information, shared contacts (common friends or colleagues), and any e-mail attachments you have sent or received from that person.

If, like Xobni, Facebook can help you organize your e-mail around people instead of individual messages or threads, it just might catch on.

@Facebook.com, @FB.com and Facebook Mail Addresses

With more than 500 million users on Facebook, the chances that you would get your actual name as your Facebook Mail address are pretty slim.

Would you willing to switch to the rumored Facebook Mail if you had to use an address such as Zuck23694@facebook.com? It would be AOL all over again. No thanks.

Facebook Vanity URLs?

In February, when rumors of a Facebook e-mail service first popped up, it was suggested that your e-mail address might be tied to your Facebook URL. That seems unlikely for the many users who don't have a Facebook Vanity URL (such as Facebook.com/JohnSmith), but have profile Web addresses instead such as "facebook.com/profile.php?id=100006562." I can't imagine many people saying, "Sure, just send me an e-mail to 100006562@facebook.com."

Will users with Vanity URLs have their e-mail addresses automatically assigned, what happens to everyone else?

Facebook Mail Apps?

It's all about the apps these days, whether you are getting a new smartphone, PC, or even an e-mail address. Gmail offers labs with all kinds of little gadgets you can add to your inbox such as a Google Docs widget for viewing your most recent documents. Yahoo Mail integrates services such as Flickr and Evite into its sidebar, and Hotmail displays a list of your MSN Messenger contacts.

Would the rumored Facebook Mail provide any apps at launch? Some add-ons for Facebook Mail could be an online calendar or a widget to view your documents from Microsoft's Docs.com.

Would third-party developers be able to build their own apps on top of Facebook Mail? You could imagine several scenarios where that would be handy. Social gamers, for example, might enjoy a way to view their friends' Farmville stats from their inbox. But more importantly, what kind of access to your data would a developer have such as your e-mail messages and contact lists?

Who Owns Your Data?

If Facebook really is building an e-mail product how portable is the data going to be? An absolute necessity would be POP or IMAP functionality that lets you download your e-mail messages into a desktop mail client. A way to export your contact lists into a spreadsheet file would also be a must. Without those two basic requirements, forget it. Who wants to use a new e-mail service that won't let you pull out your own data? Facebook recently launched a service that lets you download your profile information. Let's hope the social network does something similar for its rumored e-mail service.

Of course, Facebook could surprise everyone and not announce an e-mail client at all. We'll know for sure during Facebook's announcement starting at 10 a.m. Pacific. You can watch the announcement yourself on Facebook Live.

Would you be willing to use Facebook for e-mail?

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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