Last week everyone was talking excitedly about Facebook’s announcement that it was to introduce a new messaging system which would kill email. The email killer was to be… Facebook email! The differences have become a little clearer since their initial announcement, and it seems now that the real benefits are in integration and, surprisingly, privacy.

Facebook LogoFacebook’s new email system, or messaging system as they’re preferring to call it, will integrate three main communications mediums, including traditional email, messaging (including chat) and text messaging. The idea is that text messages, chat messages, Facebook messages and emails could all be combined into a single communications medium, and that storage would be virtually unlimited, so that every text, message and email could be stored for later reference.

So what is Facebook really trying to do here? Kill off email? Unlikely. It was a headline grabber, and it caught people’s imaginations, but no matter how powerful, Facebook isn’t going to revolutionise the web to quite that extent. The clue though is in the fact that Facebook is making ever increasingly discernable noises regarding encouraging people to set Facebook as their homepage.

Facebook as your home page, as a way to chat, as an email centre, a news portal, a way to organise groups, a facility to network, find businesses, find friends and family, keep in touch, play games… hang on, isn’t this all a bit familiar?

Rewind a decade or so and you might remember a little company called AOL. Oh certainly they still exist, trying desperately to cling on to a sliver of the market, but the intentions of Facebook seem to very much echo many of those made by AOL. The biggest web company of the 90’s wanted its users to use its page as their homepage, to stay there, to use it as the means to explore a portion of the web, play games, communicate, keep in touch with friends and family, email, chat, catch up on the latest happenings and generally boost the amount of time spent on AOL’s site.

AOL LogoSo what went wrong with AOL? Apart from the move from dial up and limited broadband access the real problem was the effective walled garden which was created. People eventually felt that too much was contained within the secret garden of AOL’s domain, and they broke out, exploring and discovering the wider web and what it could do.

Is Facebook in any danger of trying to achieve too much, creating the same sort of ticking bomb? Many people are already suggesting that it’s starting to crumble a little around the edges, because whilst Facebook has an undeniably massive user base, and offers a huge amount, it doesn’t really do any one thing particularly well. In fact many of its best ideas and features have been taken from existing rivals, such as Digg, Reddit, Twitter and, with the new email system, even Google.

So what is Facebook now? It’s gone beyond being defined as providing a specific, identifiable service and is now trying to offer a vague collection of mediocre services for its 550 million users. Is that good enough? Will the new Facebook messaging system prove popular, or will the reputation Facebook have had in the past for security make people rather more wary about centralising almost all of their communications?

A few years ago Google introduced its email service with the bold statement that it would offer the chance to integrate chat with email, and provide an almost unlimited amount of storage space so that you needn’t ever delete another email. It even introduced the idea of threaded email conversations. Did Google take over email? No. Did they wipe out spam? Hardly. AOL was once the biggest online company there was, and when it passed, hardly anyone realised. What does the future hold for Facebook? That’s anyone’s guess, but the chances are high there’ll be some interesting developments over the next 18 months.