Facebook recently announced a messaging product that promises seamless messaging, conversation history and a social in-box, nothing short of a new way to communicate, regardless of the channel —SMS, e-mail, IM or chat. The Social Inbox will only contain messages from Friends and Friends of Friends, with other messages being routed to the 'Other' Folder.
In conjunction with the announcement, Facebook noted that, "relatively soon, we'll probably all stop using arbitrary 10-digit numbers and bizarre sequences of characters to contact each other. We will just select friends by name and be able to share with them instantly. We aren't there yet, but the changes today are a small first step."
While that may be a noble goal, it is a lofty goal, one that may take a long time to come to reality, if ever. Why? It has to do with the numerous ways that both people and enterprises may be addressed.
Let's use Network Unaffiliated Virtual Operators (NUVO) as an example. NUVOs are services that offer replacement or complementary P2P services such as SMS and voice, independent of any network operator. They include services such as Google Voice, MediaFriends' HeyWire, Pinger's TextFree, Toktumi's Line 2 and quite a few others.
NUVOs assign you a new telephone number and extend messaging and sometimes voice to devices other than 'phones.' With these types of service providers growing in popularity, it is not only feasible but likely that many people may be addressable by multiple telephone numbers - all registered with a single or across multiple devices. With my laptop, iPad, and iPhone, I now have five telephone numbers assigned. I also maintain four e-mail addresses and am registered on four IM services (including Facebook Chat). You're probably thinking: 'That is insane! Why so many numbers?' Partly because many of the NUVOs are customers or prospects of ours, but each offers a plethora of benefits I think are useful.
In the instant messaging (or IM) world, there are numerous communities. Facebook Chat is the newest and, according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, one that generates 4 billion messages today from 350 million Facebook users. But then there are still millions users of Windows Live Messenger, AOL, GoogleTalk, ACQ and many other IM communities.
Of course, you know about the zillions of e-mail communities we all deal with — we have personal e-mails, work e-mails, and even 'speciality e-mails' such as eBay e-mails, that are only within the eBay community (you are addressed by your eBay ID). In fact, many enterprises and communities offer varying types of e-mail-like or IM-like P2P communications channels.
Add to that the almost 5 billion subscribers addressable by SMS, and you see the enormity of the problem standing in the way of reaching a single method of addressing. From a global standpoint, while it would be nice to undo several generations of telephone number usage, we are extremely far from that point.
Instead, what we're likely to see is different communities settling on a common manner to register a person that will span multiple communications mediums or channels. On mobile devices, the common messaging client is now standard, where you can receive or send SMS or MMS, depending on the type of media you include - the client is intelligent enough to decide if a message is an SMS or an MMS message. In their own way, Facebook has extended that intelligence to span their IM or chat community, e-mail and SMS, itself. I expect them to further integrate other communities, e-mails and even phone numbers into that client.
Doing the same on a global scale will be a much larger challenge - and one that will probably be incrementally undertaken. For example, if you want to simply contact me as 'Bill Dudley' or 'William Dudley,' then you have to separate me from all of the other 'Bill Dudleys' and 'William Dudleys' that are out there - meaning today, you have to map my name to one or more of my addressing methods - that is, one of my e-mail, IM, or telephone numbers. However, I may not want to be found, or I may want to remain anonymous, so using my name may not be the optimal way to universally address me. So, in many ways, we are back to square one - I'm left with my five anonymous phone numbers to be given out as I see fit.
The upshot: On a global basis, it will be extremely challenging to move 5+ billion people from telephone number based ecosystem to one that registers some, other addressing scheme to reach people, businesses or enterprises without multiple 'social' or 'enterprise' communities. Of course, the biggest community of all is the global PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), based on the ITUs E.164 standard, which defines the international public telecommunications numbering plan or the format of telephone numbers around the world.
We'll probably always have to map telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, IM handles, and other addresses to our friends and enterprises, through various clients or apps. People will need to be smart about it, as everyone will have different preferences as to how they will want to be contacted. It all began with the simple, automated contact list. Now, Facebook has taken this to a new level, by integrating various forms of 'messaging channels' into a intelligent, universal client or as they call it the Social Inbox. I think this is a great start and one that will evolve across a variety of 'communities' and not just Facebook. Time will tell.
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