Facebook is expected to make an announcement today that could have a huge impact on the email industry, but AOL made an announcement first. The company has unveiled a preview of a new version of AOL Mail, which it's referring to as "Project Phoenix."
"Email remains one of the most vital communication tools despite all of the new sites and apps available to consumers today," said Brad Garlinghouse, President of AOL's Consumer Applications Group. "There is still so much innovation to be done in the space and Project Phoenix is just the beginning. We see a huge opportunity to disrupt email in a big way. AOL is the company that brought everyone online, and now we're making it simpler and more enjoyable to be there."
The company explains the new features (from the announcement):
Quick Bar - makes it easy to quickly send emails, instant or text messages and even update Facebook and Twitter via Lifestream directly from the inbox. Smart View - prominently displays important information like maps, attached photos and files, and conversation threads on the right hand side of the inbox so users can see relevant details and files before they even open a message. Email aggregation - makes it is easy to receive and send messages from almost any provider, including GMail, Yahoo! Mail, and Hotmail, right inside your AOL inbox. Single-click search - makes it easy to search across any folder and all email accounts and instantly refine the search by clicking simple options that appear dynamically next to the search results. Free access to premium service - includes customer support for each email account along with unlimited storage, a choice of POP or IMAP email service, and support for email attachments of up to 25MB.
If it were just AOL releasing a new version of its email service, it's hard to say if the world would really bat an eye, but with Facebook expected to make an announcement in this space, it really shows just how significant email still is in the realtime, social media and increasingly mobile, location-based world we're living in.
Don't get me wrong, AOL is already a significant part of the email space, and I don't mean to take anything away from that. My first email address was AOL, and many people still use the service, but Facebook represents a newer communication channel, and by entering the email space it would seem to indicate that even an emerging leader of the web (one that is now going toe to toe with Google itself in a variety of capacities) recognizes how key email is. Email is social.
In fact, recent research from Gartner seems to suggest that the distinction between email and social networks is eroding. Not only is Facebook's announcement likely to contribute to this concept, but there are already plenty of inbox-social media integrations in existence (including AOL's Project Phoenix). Google even launched its most recent attempt at a social network (Buzz) right in Gmail, and still plans to add unspecified social layers to other products (which will be connected by the Google [or Gmail] account).
What's going to be really interesting is how marketers adapt to the merger between email and social media. Many are already adapting. Social is becoming commonplace in email marketing, and those who aren't utilizing social will likely find themselves behind the curve if this trend continues.
For now, email marketing still trumps social, when you're talking about one against the other. Read here for some thoughts on the implications of a Facebook email service on marketing (as well as just personal use).