SAN FRANCISCO: Facebook has unveiled a "next generation" messaging system that puts the social media firm in direct competition with Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

The site's Messages service gathers together correspondence between members - whether SMS, chat, email or instant messaging - in one place.

Users can access this information through "whatever medium or device is convenient for them", and the company is also offering "" email addresses.

Its new "social inbox" will only contain content from friends with further material stored separately, and possibly blocked altogether if settings are amended.

"To be clear, Messages is not email. There are no subject lines, no cc, no bcc, and you can send a message by hitting the Enter key," Joel Seligstein, engineering manager, Messages, wrote on the Facebook blog.

"We modelled it more closely to chat and reduced the number of things you need to do to send a message. We wanted to make this more like a conversation."

Looking forward, Seligstein suggested Facebook's latest move marked a "small first step" towards a broader change.

"Relatively soon, we'll probably all stop using arbitrary ten digit numbers and bizarre sequences of characters to contact each other," he said. "We will just select friends by name and be able to share with them instantly."

Speaking at the Messages launch event in San Francisco, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's ceo, said: "The future of communication is not email."

"This is not an email killer," he continued. "We don't expect anyone to wake up tomorrow and say, 'OK I'm going to shut down my Yahoo email or my Gmail account'."

"Maybe one day, six months, a year, two years out people will start to say this is how the future should work."

Augie Ray, a Forrester analyst, asserted that Messages showed Facebook is focusing on "real friends" instead of "thousands of soft relationships."

"Facebook wants to be the platform for personal communications and leave the boring stuff to Gmail and others," he said.

"The new Facebook messaging system will seem as comfortable as an old pair of shoes to kids … It won't take long for adults to join them; that's because adults have an even greater need for messaging simplification."

But Facebook will not scan keywords to deliver targeted ads, a strategy Ray argued would be potentially damaging.

"Facebook knows it has to earn more trust," he said. "For now, Facebook is content to have more people spend more time sending and receiving messages, and that means more page views, ad impressions and revenue."

Charlene Li, of the Altimeter Group, believes Facebook has reached a benchmark stage in its development.

"For me today represents the day when Facebook truly becomes a portal on the level of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL," she said.

"They just made it so much more compelling to centre my communications on Facebook rather than anywhere else."

But Brad Garlinghouse, AOL's president, consumer applications, predicted such a transition would be difficult to achieve.

"Just like it is not easy for traditional e-mail companies to compete in social, it is not going to be easy for social companies to compete with e-mail," he said.

"I am not friends on Facebook with my accountant, with my doctor, or with United Airlines," he added, but each source could send items urgently requiring attention.

Data sourced from Facebook, New York Times, Forrester; additional content by Warc staff