You've got Facemail! Now what?

Facebook's rumored 'Gmail killer' email service is on the way. Cringely says Facebook's inevitable decline will soon follow

I'm fascinated by how technology's center of gravity shifts over time. For a long time Microsoft was the 900-pound gorilla (careful where you stand -- it's got a bad case of gas). More recently Apple and Google have taken turns dominating what we talk about when the topic is tech. Now it's all Facebook, all the time.

In case you missed it, today at 10 a.m. EST Facebook will unveil "Project Titan," a Facebook-based Webmail system -- aka, the "Gmail killer." Or so I've read about 10,247 times since last Thursday. Hope I didn't shock you with that one.

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In a few hours we'll be taking a blogbath in whatever news Facebook spills out onto the InterWebs, along with endless analysis, parsing, regurgitation, entrail readings, and lists of five reasons/questions/whatevers churned out by bloggers who are clearly paid by the page view.

Before we get into that, though, let me rant a bit about the Gmail Killer trope that spread across the Web last weekend like a bad rash. Here's a news flash for lazy headline writers: Gmail is not dead, nor is it in danger of expiring any time soon. FaceMail or Fmail or FBmail or whatever Project Titan ends up being called is as likely to send Gmail to the great hereafter as Gmail was to whack Yahoo Mail or Yahoo Mail was to snuff out Hotmail. Free services never die -- they just become disposable tools for spammers.

Gmail is unlikely to suffer that fate, though, because it's been adopted by small businesses in a way that Hot/Yahoo have not, and because it's kind of essential to anyone who owns an Android phone -- which will soon be the majority of smartphone users, if current trends hold.

So enough of that.

To me, what's interesting about this isn't what features Fmail will offer -- because frankly, who the frak needs another Webmail service? It's what this means for Facebook, which has spent the last year churning out new products and features at a Google-like pace.

This is what happens when companies get too big too quickly. They confuse being lucky and good with being great and all powerful. They think they can do anything. They overreach. And then they fall. It happens to nearly all of them.

Google is a prime example. Its list of failed or failing projects (Orkut, Wave, and the Nexus One, for starters) is now almost as long as its list of successes. For the past year or so, Google has been dining on a steady diet of cow paddies in black bean sauce (Google.cn, anyone?).

Microsoft has been overreaching since Steve Ballmer still had hair, believing that its near-monopoly over the desktop and dominance of office suites gave it the power to dictate everything else we use. That's not been working out for the company very well lately, nor will it in the future.

Of all the big momentum shifters in tech, Apple has been the most deliberate and as a result has suffered the fewest faceplants. True, Apple TV never gained the cult following of other MacInJobs masterworks, possibly because Jobs himself never seemed all that excited about it. But Apple has never sought to be everything to everybody or to play the volume game. It has done quite well marketing pricier products to the digital elite -- or people who aspired to be the digital elite through the act of buying Apple products. It's a neat trick, if you can pull it off.

And now Facebook, which wants to be your social network, your photo and video sharing conduit, your search engine, your recommendations machine, your geolocator, your coupon distributor, and (apparently) your email service. This may well be its jump-the-cartilaginous-killer-fish moment.

When you try to be all things to all people, you risk being nothing to no one. I think I saw that on a fortune cookie somewhere.

Is Facebook getting sharky? If so, should we start calling it Fishbook? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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Robert X. Cringely

InfoWorld
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