The Future of Email: Facebook’s Social Inbox?

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Last week, Facebook launched its new “social inbox” feature. The unified messaging system pipes the online and mobile communication functions people use — email, SMS, instant messaging, Facebook chat messages — into a single inbox. Having just one place to communicate with everyone from coworkers to family members seems like a good idea, but is this social inbox the future of email or online communication? I don’t think so, and I explain why in my latest article for GigaOM Pro, Social Inbox Vs. the Future of Email (sub. req.).

Having a single inbox that interfaces with a variety of different messaging system is very difficult to get right (and Facebook isn’t the first to try it; Mozilla has been experimenting with unified inboxes with its Raindrop project, for example). The reason for this, as Ray Sun notes in this blog post, is that the various underlying messaging systems and how people use them are fundamentally different. For instance, you can’t simply take an email thread and send it as SMS messages, especially if there are many participants and the messages are lengthy. Recipients would find them very confusing. Different communication methods are used in different ways, too: IM is a synchronous communication method, for example, while email is asynchronous.

Despite numerous potential challengers flourishing in recent years (including instant messaging, IRC, social networks, microblogging, VoIP, SMS and collaboration software) email continues to grow popularity. I think the real revolution that’s coming in email is getting more value from the system we already have. Gist, Rapportive and Xobni all  provide great examples of how we can use technology to enhance the email experience and make it much more useful. While the functionality provided by the likes of Xobni is currently only available via plugins or add-ons for email clients, you can bet it won’t be long before we see these kind of features being baked into Outlook and Gmail and available to a much wider number of users; Gmail’s Priority Inbox feature is an example of a step in this direction.

Read more about how I think email will develop over on GigaOM Pro.

Photo courtesy stock.xchng user GretheB.

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