Facebook to unveil Gmail alternative today?

All signs are pointing to Facebook introducing an email service today, positioning the social networking giant directly against Google


Facebook is reportedly planning to launch an email service today, with news sites TechCrunch and VentureBeat apparently confirming the rumours with independent sources.

If the reports are correct, the move would position Facebook against Google's Gmail in an increasingly competitive webmail market. It would also explain why Facebook and Gmail have been battling recently with concerns over user data - Google has been preventing Facebook from importing Gmail data, and perhaps this is because such a feature would help people migrate from Gmail to Facebook email with ease.

The rumoured service wouldn't be just an updated version of Facebook's Inbox, either, but an actual webmail client to compete with services such as Gmail and Hotmail, according to TechCrunch. Code-named Project Titan, the new email service is expected to be announced at a special Facebook press event during the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco.

Rumours of a Facebook email service first surfaced in February. At the time, it was suggested that your Facebook vanity URL might be automatically assigned to you as your @facebook.com email address.

 Adding credence to TechCrunch's report are two features in Facebook's press invitation suggesting today's event is all about messaging. The invite features Facebook's Inbox/Messages icon used in its mobile phone applications. The invite also features a red and blue border similar to an airmail envelope.

If Facebook webmail is coming today, it will likely be welcomed by a large number of Facebook users. But a Facebook email service is almost certain to cause concern among privacy advocates. Using Facebook for webmail would put even more of your data in the hands of the social network. And the company would almost certainly mine your messages for keywords to better target advertising at you, similar to what Google's Gmail does now.

There may also be concern that Facebook would control, and possibly block, email messages flowing through its servers. In early 2009, torrent site The Pirate Bay introduced a new feature that let Facebook users send each other links to torrent files through Facebook's Inbox messaging service. It didn't take long before Facebook started blocking private messages containing torrent links, according to Wired. At the time, Facebook argued it had the right to block this content since the company forbids its members to use the service for unlawful purposes such as disseminating copyrighted material. Facebook can also be overly aggressive with its anti-spam filtering, which could hamper use of a Facebook email service if you start sending too many email messages at once.

Facebook will also have to convince users their email won't be locked into the social network's webmail client. The most obvious way to allay those concerns would be to provide POP and IMAP access allowing you to send and receive Facebook email through a desktop client such as Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird.

But data portability is not Facebook's strong suit, as the social network proved last week during its fight with Google over Facebook's refusal to let users export their friends' contact information.

Then again, Facebook improved its attitude toward data portability in October when it launched an export tool that lets you download almost all of your Facebook data directly to your desktop.

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