Since crossing 400 million users on it's 6th birthday, the powerhouse that is Facebook has radically changed its home page to focus more on "search" by increasing the size of the search bar and placing it more prominently. TechCrunch has also reported that Facebook is developing a full featured web-mail client to rival the likes of Google's Gmail, Microsoft's Hotmail and Yahoo's Mail service. The deciding factor that Facebook brings to the table is the benefit of having a web-mail service which links you with virtually everyone you know.
While e-mails are ubiquitous there is still a problem of actually finding someone's e-mail address. Is it abhiroopb [at] gmail [dot] com or abhi[at] gmail [dot] com? On Facebook no such problem exists as you merely search for your "friends" full name. This has also lead to the explosion of Facebook Chat. Unlike Google Talk's polish or MSN Messenger's massive user base, Facebook Chat does not require you to hunt down all your contacts as they are already there. This is the true power that Facebook is able to harness. Each time a new product is rolled out your circle of friends stays the same and as a result your horizon for communication is unlimited. This is vastly different from Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo where signing up requires meticulously creating a list of contacts and searching for their e-mail and chat IDs, which may, unbeknownst to you, change frequently. If Facebook can develop a mail platform that rivals the established players in terms of features and usability it will be difficult to stop masses of users migrating to a service that is already an integral part of their lives.
The Wall Street Journal's recent report suggesting that Google is "taking a swipe at Facebook and Twitter" by creating a system that makes it easier for users to view status and media updates, may imply that Google is already privy to the aforementioned exodus and is preparing its own services. There is no question that Google's products, namely gMail, gCalender, gDocs and gReader, are a far more polished suite that provides professional level services that Facebook cannot hope to immediately emulate. However, Facebook's aim, just like Google's, is to keep you on their site for as long as possible. Up until now the mailing feature of Facebook was merely an extension of "wall posts", albeit a more private form of expression. With the proposed changes it could become a more ubiquitous service that is used for personal as well as professional communications.
Facebook's focus on search and email and gMails proposed social media developments seems to be heralding in a new type of "web service" which is extending the boundaries of social networking. Just as the smartphone (or "app phone") has made a PDA, laptop and MP3 player redundant while on the move, so to will these new web services blur the lines of social interaction on the web.
The only reason I use Facebook is because everyone else is on it. I'm sure this is true for 99% of its 400 million user base. However, right now it is spammy and unpolished. I feverishly await the day that the "Google" of social sites will emerge.