Wednesday, November 17, 2010

All your base are belong to Zuck

So Facebook announced that it's launching a new messaging platform that will combine e-mail, IM and social network messaging. Where have I heard this before?

Damn, I loved Google Wave. Well, maybe not; I loved what Wave could have become. The potential Wave. The Wave That Could Have Been. The platonic ideal of Wave. I did not for a second have any love for the buggy, poorly-designed pile of dog poo that Google released to the masses to universal cries of "Huh?"

Last year I wrote a quick wish list for a Wave-like replacement for e-mail and IM. The things I longed for:
  1. It has to seamlessly support multiple public identities
  2. It has to support conversations in a native way
  3. Users should be able to slip into and out of live chat seamlessly, without advertising their presence
  4. It should require encryption and cryptographic signing
The wave federation protocol had some amazing stuff to handle wish #1, but all of it was missing in the Wave web client that Google released. You got one address and that was it. It did #2, and did it very well. As for seamlessly switching between a messaging and chat paradigm, Wave did it this too but you still got annoying privacy-invading "who's online" crap. Finally, cryptography was added late in the game to the Wave protocol, and since the Google service was the only implementation, it was a bit of a moot point.

In hindsight, I'd like to add:
  1. It should integrate with existing protocols.
  2. It should be relatively easy to implement, especially on mobile devices.
These were by far Wave's biggest failings. There's no point in making an e-mail replacement if you can't use it to e-mail anybody. And Google's insistence on the anti-feature of character-by-character updates (which put off most users who actually quite enjoy the ability to review what they just typed before casting it off into the void) and complex extensions not only made implementation horrendously complicated - in most cases, especially on mobile devices, impossible.

Imagine a Google Wave that could send and receive e-mails and IMs, manage multiple identities and got rid of the character-by-character updates. Never mind extensions that add interactive maps or games or bots that check your spelling and all the other geekery that was being worked on - you shouldn't be doing any of that until you tackle the basics. And you can't do any of it unless you encourage an ecosystem of clients and servers that just couldn't flourish when it had to support a complex JavaScript engine just to show what to most people was a simple message. I'd buy that for a dollar.

So Wave died and was hardly mourned by anyone who used it, and now Facebook has come to fill the void.

How does the new Facebook Messaging compare with my wishlist?

It miserably fails #1, multiple identities. With Facebook, you only have one identity which is almost always labelled with your real name. It seems to be able to manage #2, native conversations and #3, the message/chat duality - the extent of this remains to be seen. #4, strong crypto, is nowhere to be found. It does hit #5, legacy protocol support, pretty sweetly, but #6 doesn't even apply - the only ones who can implement this are Facebook themselves.

Of course, not all items on this wish list are meant to be necessary ingredients for success. But I can't see anyone who doesn't already use Facebook messaging extensively being tempted to use this platform for anything. All it will do is allow these people to almost completely drop traditional e-mail and just use their new Facebook e-mail address instead. For anyone who is not already an Facebook user, I just can't see the appeal - you'll have to get inundated in all the Facebook stuff that refuseniks actively despise, and despite the half-billion with a Facebook profile (most of them never log in anyway) there's a hell of a lot more people without one.

In any case, no technology has ever become established without the ability to use it as a platform. Aside from their half-hearted attempts at a federated identity service and the two or three apps that actually were successful (Farmville, Farmville and another one that begins with "Farm" and ends with "Ville") instead of just devaluing their brand by messing up the clean design that prevented them from being yet another MySpace clone, Facebook doesn't really want to open up to an ecosystem of developers and partners, or at least hasn't figured out how to yet.

One of the more successful aspects of Facebook as a social network is its ability to encourage people to use their real identities on their profiles. Sure, some people use a nickname or abbreviate their last name to an initial but for the most part you're not pretending to be someone else on Facebook. Granted, almost everybody's pretending they're a prettier, sexier, more interesting, sociable and fun version of themselves, but they're still themselves. Very few cases actually invent a completely distinct persona.

While this works wonders for a social network that aims to mirror real life social connections to as close a degree as possible, it will fail as a communication medium where anonymity and especially multiple personas (friend-me, family-me, work-me, professional-me) are part and parcel of how we communicate with others.

So, once again, ignore all this talk of Facebook Messaging being a GMail killer. It'll just allow a small subset of Facebook-obsessed teens (a dying breed as most people learn to see Facebook for what it is and nothing more) to stop logging on to their e-mail accounts since their grandparents can now just email them at their @facebook.com address. Let's not get carried away here.

The next e-mail and IM killer app is still coming. It has to come. It wasn't Wave, and it's not going to be Facebook either. Don't you just love the suspense?

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