AOL, Facebook Prep Gmail-Killers

Responding to the rapid growth of Google's Gmail service, and broader fears that the online behemoth will simply pour more and more money into those efforts, some of the Internet's most popular destinations are plotting dramatic email overhauls of their own. AOL, the former America Online, just announced its new webmail solution, Project Phoenix, which embraces today's social networking trends and provides what looks like a very sophisticated web experience. And Facebook, which has more than 500 million users, will today announce a new email service, codenamed Project Titan, which will extend that service's popularity to email.

Neither service is well understood at this time. AOL's Project Phoenix is available for beta invite signup currently, and AOL expects it to enter a broader beta next year. According to a promotional video about the service, Phoenix will consolidate multiple email accounts into a single location, provide 25GB of free storage, come with 24-hour customer support, and—most important, perhaps—sport a clean, modern UI that lets users interact with others not just via email messages but also with free SMS, via popular social networking services (including Facebook) and more.

"We're a different company than we were a year ago," Phoenix project lead Fletcher Jones told the AP. "Our priorities are on audience growth." While AOL is no longer the dominant Internet-access company it was over a decade ago, it still generates respectable traffic, 45 percent of which goes through the current AOL Mail service. Clearly, this new service is aimed at keeping those traffic levels high in an age in which users are increasingly moving to more modern services.

Over at Facebook, traffic isn't an issue. But the current version of the service is still hobbled by a weird, internal-only, email-like messaging service that doesn't work well beyond the bounds of Facebook.com. So the company has been developing a true email service to replace the current one and is expected to announce that service on Monday.

According to sources, Facebook will allow users to enable facebook.com email addresses that work with normal email applications on PCs and mobile devices. This functionality will come with a web-based client that integrates with the broader Facebook service. Privacy advocates are no doubt already sharpening their pencils, or whatever they use these days, to write sharp-witted condemnations of the company and its privacy-adverse service.

Indeed, one issue both companies face is that neither brand is particularly well respected. No one with technical chops will ever be interested in an aol.com email address, though AOL is responding to that reality by allowing custom domains. But it's unlikely Facebook will go that route, since it's all about keeping its users locked into a walled garden. Facebook.com email addresses will certainly be met with the same derision as aol.com and mac.com email addresses, as the hidden message they communicate is that their owner isn't particularly sophisticated about how they present themselves to others.

More seriously, it's hard to imagine hackers not targeting facebook.com addresses specifically. After all, a good portion of that service's subscribers do very little to protect their own privacy, and they'll be seen as easy marks.

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