Friday, January 28, 2011

Facebook takes on Gmail, then Google takes on Groupon

It seems the world of online business never has a shortage of cutthroat competition, rumors, and one company trying to take over another. Nowadays everybody is looking for the upper hand, and nobody is satisfied with what they've got. It's the unfortunate truth of our small world. Anyway, back in November of last year, all the buzz what about Facebook's new messaging system, but now it seems Facebook is handing out invitations to the system a little more liberally, which hints that things are moving along behind the scenes of the world's largest social networking site. The new system, for lack of a better explanation, is an exact copy of Gmail with some add-ons akin to Google Wave, and looks pretty much like an attempt on the life of email itself, though Facebook claims otherwise. Move forward two months, and now Google is making a similar move, except with Groupon. What started as mere rumors and a suspicious new logo has now been confirmed as Google Offers, Google's newest service that will help buyers find deals in their neighborhood, exactly like Groupon.

The reason I find the new Facebook Messages so disturbing is that Facebook really did not put any creativity into the matter. Conversations instead of separate messages (Gmail's original feature), smart filtering that puts your important messages on top (Gmail's Priority Inbox), a paradigm that combines email, chat, SMS, and other forms of communication (similar to the goal of Google Wave, not to mention you can email, chat, and SMS from Gmail already), group conversations with the ability to add and remove recipients (clearly Google Wave), and "revamped search" as Facebook calls it. There is not a single feature in the new Facebook messages that has not already been covered by previous technology. In fact, the only unique change is something they removed. They got rid of the subject line. Unfortunately for Facebook users, Mark Zuckerberg knows that with a few words he can change our entire worlds to his liking. Facebook has hundreds of millions of users, and very few of them can socially afford to leave, so no matter what changes are made to the UI or the infrastructure of the site, as long as Facebook serves the same social needs it's always been delivering on, nobody is willing to leave.

And the real dagger in the heart behind it all: a Facebook email address. That's right, you can now contact me at, but to tell you the truth if you do I'd never speak to you again. Once you activate the new Facebook messages, you get your own email address at Facebook that is a copy of your username. The clear intent here is to draw people away from services like Gmail and Ymail so that they can get forever lost in the addiction of Facebook. However, what they don't realize over there in Palo Alto is that their plan is flawed and highly unlikely to succeed. Most people who use email do so because it is more professional than traditional communication. Companies looking to hire usually don't Facebook message their employees, and something tells me a Facebook email address does not change the situation much. Google learned the hard way from Wave that people are not interested in merging all forms of communication. Most of the people I know who want to consolidate their electronic systems are computer nerds.

But to discover really why email is not dying anytime soon with the new Facebook messages, all you have to do is ask yourself one question: why do people use Facebook? I, for one, use Facebook to find out what my friends are doing, how they're feeling, and overall remain involved in everybody's lives. When a person feels like they don't have control of a system, they find ways to take control. So when you average everyday Facebook user feels like they cannot control their social life, they go to Facebook to find out what everybody is saying or doing, and by improving their knowledge of the social system, thus feel they are gaining more control. You may not think about it while you're going about your everyday life, but in reality life is just an attempt to get the upper hand. I mean, bringing it right back to Facebook itself, what other motive could Mark Zuckerberg possibly have to attack email other than to get the upper hand on Google? Unless, of course, you think Facebook actually cares about their users and what they want, in which case I would like to remind you of the many UI changes that have been so strongly protested by Facebook users. And to complement that: why do people use email? Email is a more professional and more private form of communication. People use it because it's more official than sending a Facebook message. A Facebook email address is not going to make Facebook any less professional. In other words, the new Facebook messages will not kill email because not only do users not care about consolidating their communication, all the reasons people use email remain in effect despite the new messaging system.

So the new messaging system was announced, and time goes on. Now we are faced with Google making an attack of its own. Groupon is a coupon website that connects users with deals and discounts from local merchants. Much like advertisers register with Google to get their ads placed in Google's content network, merchants register with Groupon to get their coupons delivered to users. The revenue model is similar as well. Everybody wants to save money, so naturally Groupon grew fast as people used it to get discounts faster and more automatic than ever before. And, of course, it reached the point where social media began to take notice. Soon thereafter, Google began serious dealing with Groupon to try and buy them out, but Groupon turned Google down. And as payback, Google is now launching its own Groupon competitor: Google Offers. It started as mere rumors, but it was later confirmed and we can expect to see local offers popping up in our search results in the near future.

So what does Google taking on Groupon have anything to do with Facebook taking on email? Well, the connection is simple, but not obvious. They are both cases of very big corporations who are not satisfied with what they have, trying to get more and more, not caring about the rest of the industry or the users and consumers for that matter. There used to be a time where the realm of technology and computers was pure and communal, a time where sharing actually was caring, and the corruption of big business had not yet been able to break into the fortress of online communities. Both of these events are stark reminders of how far we've come, and what is really going on the tech world. There are so many entrepreneurs out there that go into the world thinking they can come up with the next cool online service and become successful, but the instant they breach the threshold of notability, big corporations will be coming for everything they've got, and that's the reason why the world has gotten the way it is today.

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