There is some interesting fighting going on recently regarding contact lists between Google and Facebook. Both services want to give users the ability to export some information, but neither service wants to populate the contact list of the other. Much of the argument seems to center around “data portability” or “openness”. However, the real fight is not about who is more open or even who is the centralized social contact list. This battle is likely going to include the default email client as many suspect that Facebook will release a new email service, but the battle is not about email either.

Over a year ago, I wrote about the battle for your attention between Facebook and Google. It seemed obvious even then that these two companies were converging to generally the same spot:

So, Facebook is trying to get closer to a real email client and generally be the only site you visit on any given day. Google already has your email, but wants to provide all of the functionality you could possibly need and make it all social for you. Both companies know that communication is the key to winning. If they provide the easiest and best communications tools, they will likely become the destination of choice.

Everyone seems to be talking about the Facebook email client, and it has been the subject of many blog posts over the past week. Part of the issue is that the focus has been on the “GMail killer” potential. Compete.com even talks about how GMail is not that big of a target based on the amount of traffic it gets:

US Internet Traffic to Web-based Email Clients (from Compete.com September 2010)

Site Unique Visitors Percent
mail.yahoo.com 72.8MM 44%
mail.live.com (Hotmail) 48.5MM 30%
mail.google.com 25.1MM 15%
inbox.com 7.4MM 5%
me.com 3.1MM 2%
outlook.com 1.9MM 1%
Others 4.7MM 3%

This focus on email is definitely clouding the issue, but there is some excellent commentary available. Mashable focuses on the digital identity aspects:

Google and Facebook’s battle isn’t simply about any one company blocking access to data or acting juvenile; the stakes are nothing less than complete dominance of the web. As we’ve noted in the past, Google and Facebook are locked in a heated battle to become your default social profile. Whichever company controls identity on the web, controls the web.

ReadWriteWeb is focusing more on the openness debate:

Maybe it’s battles like this, between the Internet giants, that will settle the debate. Perhaps folks like Maler, Bizannes, Saad and Greenberg will finally convince them that openness is in their best interest. Or maybe, one day, the users will demand a way to do what they want with their data.

I really do wish this was about being able to extract our social contacts. That type of discussion has real actions that we can take. If people could export their social contacts, that would make moving between services much simpler. It would also give users the ability to have centralized storage of contacts like Windows Live is trying to do. It is also something that users would love, one place to look for phone numbers or email addresses or IM accounts.

Disappointingly, this is only about your attention. If Facebook can create an email client, they don’t care if it kills GMail or Yahoo Mail or Hotmail, they only care if you spend more time on facebook.com. Google is adding social elements to everything it can, that way you spend more time sharing content with other people and comment more on Google Buzz.

The real problem is that Facebook has already won, and Google has not realized it. Facebook has over 500 million users. A lot of these people post updates, play Farmville and send a few messages to their friends. If Facebook has an email client that does not entirely suck, most of their users will flock to it. It is a simple matter of laziness. Most people will just use the email client that works and has all of their contacts. If this client is integrated with Facebook, then it is one less place I need to go to. If that email client knows my entire social graph and I do not need to know the real email address, then that makes my communication that much easier.

Will I use the Facebook email client? No, mainly because I use GMail and I hate the idea of Facebook owning my email as well as most of my social network. I also hate switching email providers because it is such a hassle. Early adopters seem to be mostly on GMail as well. The interesting question here is whether Facebook creates an email client that is good enough for the masses or good enough for early adopters. If early adopters do not like it, it just means they will not use it. Mass consumers will likely start using it because it is part of Facebook, and Facebook will gain even more of their attention.

Another interesting question is privacy and the terms that Facebook creates around an email client. If Facebook tries to target advertising based on email, there will be a firestorm of controversy again. Granted GMail does this, but many people accepted it as the price of free with Google and they had a decent history with regards to privacy. This may not be as true anymore, but when GMail initially had ads it was not a big concern. Facebook must tread lightly with email and privacy or all of the privacy wonks will be writing about it all next week. Most users will not care because their current email client probably has advertisements already. Why does this advertising question matter? It only matters because for both Google and Facebook, attention means advertising and advertising is big business.

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