The social networking giant Facebook has made its ambitious move into email, mounting a head-on challenge to Google, Hotmail and other services and attempting to turn its website into the centre of users' online communications.
The company is to start offering Facebook.com email addresses to its 500 million users, and launching what it called a “social inbox”, which will pull together emails, instant message conversations and text messages from users' friends and contacts, both from within Facebook and outside the site.
“We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be email,” Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg told attendees at the launch in San Francisco yesterday.
The aim of the service is to encourage users to spend as much time, and to share as much information, within Facebook, where the company can make money from selling targeted ads.
It is also aiming to simplify the way people exchange messages online, so that they don't have to keep switching between inboxes for email and messages.
In particular, it is being tailored for youngsters who prefer texting and instant messaging to email. “Talking to high-schoolers makes me feel really old,” said Mr Zuckerberg (26).
Around 70% of Facebook's users regularly use it to send messages to friends, with a total of four billion messages passing across the site each day. Its move into email, linking Facebook users to people outside the site, could dramatically increase those numbers.