Facebook vs. Gmail (advantage Gmail)

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Web businesses are like tennis stars. Completely dominant for a few years and irrelevant quicker than you can say “AOL/Compuserve/Altavista/Napster/Yahoo/DoubleClick/Friendster/Hotmail.”

You can count on your two hands the number of web businesses that have remained market leaders in their space for more than 5 years. Try comparing that to any other industry.

People tend to think Facebook could be the next internet mainstay for three reasons:

  1. It understands the “social graph”
  2. It has incredible personal information about their users
  3. Switching costs are high (lots of blood/sweat into building your profile)

I think this all is true. But I don’t think Facebook is unique here. Gmail‘s got them beat on all three counts.

On the social graph (1): Facebook has your hundreds of “friends.” Gmail has your thousands of email contacts. Any measure of the strength of a social connection is skewed by Facebook usage patterns  (e.g. your real friends never write “Happy Birthday” on your wall. Facebook power users do). On the other hand, your friends do email you in rough proportion to the strength of your relationship. The folks that show up on my gChat sidebar are a pretty damn good measure of who is most important in my life at any given time.

On personal information (2): Facebook profile data is nice because it is standardized, but contains far less personal information than what’s locked inside my gmail account. The shear volume of information there is incredible and just a smart algorithm away from being a huge strategic asset.

On Switching Costs (3): Switching costs for leaving Facebook for another service do exist. Building profiles is annoying. So is porting pictures. The data portability movement is going to snipe away at Facebook switching costs soon enough and we are already seeing it open up more. Gmail owns me. And even if a moderately better service existed, I would not switch. My inbox and outbox are the two most important pieces of property in my life. Unfortunately I don’t own them. Google does and therefore has me captive.

Gmail’s got the staying power and is going to be around for a while. Facebook may or it may not. Time will tell.

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