Facebook has launched a new e-mail service enabling users to send messages and pictures whether or not they are Facebook subscribers.
The move follows what some claim was an intentional blocking of the Facebook site by the Saudi Arabian authorities on moral grounds. A Press Association report quoted a government source as saying that the site had "crossed a line" and been taken down, although Saudi Arabia's Communication and Information Technology Commission later claimed a technical hitch had been the cause.
Facebook has previously been in conflict with other Muslim countries. In May, Pakistan temporarily blocked Facebook on cultural and religious grounds, and Bangladesh followed suit. The site has frequently been accused of endorsing immorality; according to a survey commissioned by the UKTV channel Really, one in 10 Britons has slept with someone they met via Facebook. The social networking site is likely to come under even greater scrutiny in Muslim countries with its latest move, as the new service would effectively connect ordinary e-mail users to the Facebook site.
Facebook says its new all-in-one messaging tool "is not e-mail but it allows people who do not use e-mail to connect with the rest of us". The new service allows users to send instant and text messages in addition to standard e-mail and Facebook notes. It represents a cross-platform method of messaging that poses a threat to Facebook's arch-rival Google, which offers its own Gmail service.
Ray Valdes, a Gartner analyst, calls the launch "another round in the protracted conflict between Facebook and Google.".
Eden Zoller, an analyst at Ovum, says: "If Facebook positions this as a full web e-mail service it will put Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! on the defensive.
"An email service from Facebook makes a lot of sense. It has a huge base of 500 million users that already love to communicate Ö Adding e-mail to the mix is a logical step, and Facebook could tap into user data to provide an attractive, highly personalised service."
But some industry observers believe Facebook has some way to go before it can present a serious challenge to Google.
"There was a rumour that, during development, Facebook staff called this a 'Gmail killer'," says Mr Valdes. "If true, that says more about the intensely competitive culture at Facebook, than it does about the near-term outcome."
But, he says: "Facebook Messages does have some positive aspects like the social prioritisation of content, integration with SMS and chat, real-time presence - in a form that goes beyond the current threshold set by Google Mail and GTalk."
At the launch, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, downplayed the notion of killing Gmail. But the two companies are locked in combat and Facebook's new service could give it the edge over Google.
"The launch stands in contrast with Google Buzz - in which Google extended their e-mail with a social dimension, and thus far has fallen short," says Mr Valdes. "Facebook is moving in the converse direction, by extending their social platform with more robust messaging."
Facebook has also teamed up with the IT software giant Microsoft against both companies' arch-rival, Google.
"Facebook's new messaging platform integrates the Office web apps to enable Facebook users to view Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents with just one click," says Takeshi Numoto, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Office.
While Facebook is initially aiming its new messaging service squarely at the consumer, the tie-up with Microsoft Office could eventually blur the line between work and leisure communications even further by allowing users to access professional documents through Facebook.
Although many Facebook users may initially be students using Office to access study documents, the social networking giant's user base is gradually maturing and increasingly includes professionals. In the longer-term, Microsoft's software muscle and Facebook's social reach could prove an unstoppable combination in the business communications field. Many organisations across the world are experimenting with using social networking for commercial advantage.
According to Gartner, 20 per cent of employees will use social networks as their business communications hub by 2014 because of the greater availability of social networking services, along with changing demographics and work styles.
"The rigid distinction between e-mail and social networks will erode. E-mail will take on many social attributes, such as contact brokering, while social networks will develop richer e-mail capabilities," says Monica Basso, the research vice president at Gartner.
The next generation of social networking services could be far more work-focused, leaving Facebook free to offer either a more comprehensive work and leisure site or develop a parallel professional service. To achieve this, Facebook may in future have to keep Microsoft as an increasingly close partner to underpin its business offering.
Microsoft is expected to create software to enable contacts, calendars and tasks to be shared across e-mail and social networks. The increased information processing power of cloud computing, another area in which Microsoft is closely involved, will enable the new professional social networking sites to operate at a level of complexity and efficiency suited to a professional medium. Gartner predicts that by 2012, contact lists, calendars and messaging clients in any smartphones will be social-enabled applications. But Microsoft may have difficulty in becoming more than just a junior partner. Newcomers Facebook and Google have already eclipsed older IT giants such as Microsoft and IBM in carving out internet territory.
"The conflict between Facebook and Google is becoming the defining tension that shapes the modern web - a web in which Google owns the content-centric portion (the old generation), and Facebook is dominant in the social web (the new generation)," says Mr Valdes. "All other competitive dynamics (Google vs Microsoft, for example) are secondary. Google can take a breath today, but needs to ramp up its game for the long haul."