I have been a total skeptic on proprietary messaging within social networks. After all, who on earth would want a proprietary tool when e-mail reaches everybody? I love it, though, when circumstances change a deeply ingrained opinion. The technology business has a way of doing that. You've likely heard the expression, "I live in Outlook." Well I used to. Now I hop rather awkwardly between Outlook and Gmail. Could I soon live in LinkedIn? Could you?

I keep on meaning to go Gmail only, but never get around to it. And Gmail has some performance and even some reliability issues, so, hedging my bets for a while seems sensible.

In that context LinkedIn's InMail just seemed like an irritation. However, I am now re-evaluating that. Partly because I am thinking that I may need something like SalesForce, just a basic contact manager. There are many good SalesForce alternatives; we are totally spoiled for choice in that area. But that seems like one more thing to manage/learn and possibly pay for (or use a free service that may not survive).

So, LinkedIn doing both starts to make sense. With a few provisos. The first is a pricing scheme I can agree to. That does not include Free, I don't trust Free in this context, because it too often means, "lock you in and then charge you too much later." Nor will I pay $20 or $50 per month for something that limits how many mails I can send.

Their $60 per year plan sounds good. That's $5 per month. But I would want unlimited mails for my own contacts whether they are in LinkedIn or not. They can still charge me for the right to send mails to people in LinkedIn who I don't know, which sounds like wonderful spam control. So for $60 I get Gmail like functionality. OK, InMail is a long way from Gmail, but all that is is some email software, and I am sure LinkedIn can license, buy or build some good webmail software, ideally with offline sync capability from day one.

Not only would this give them a really solid subscription revenue base, but every email would be viral marketing for LinkedIn.

Why would I use this rather than Gmail? Four reasons:

  1. Automatic contact management, particularly the self-updating nature (i.e., a contact changes jobs and I can see that and their contact details are always up to date).
  2. One less system to use, as LinkedIn is becoming enough of a habit that it now takes time each day.
  3. Built-in spam filter based on white-list. Yes, Gmail has great spam control, but it is still a total pain in Outlook.
  4. LinkedIn actually helps me sell/recruit/buy through networking. That is a totally different level of value proposition from just helping me to send emails or manage contacts.

Could InMail send/receive mail outside LinkedIn? Of course it could. Email standards are open.

I can envision all kinds of cool CRM 2.0 type features based on the social graph.

Of course, all this is possible because Microsoft has been asleep at the switch. It has been apparent for many years, to many people that the real social graph is in the email system and Microsoft Outlook/Exchange is where biz people keep their emails. Microsoft could have done this already, easily. Possibly they still could, but they are leaving it a bit long.

I am sure Google gets the opportunity. They have the same social graph within Gmail. I wonder what they have brewing in their labs?

Once you make the decision to break the Outlook habit as I have already done, the next step to something like InMail is not a very big one. Already my contact database in LinkedIn is more up to date and clean than my Gmail one.

Like all social networks, LinkedIn is under pressure to "open up." They may be be able to push back on that front if they create enough value so that biz people decide to live in LinkedIn as opposed to living in Outlook and SalesForce or the equivalent CRM. That would save hard $ from those services, so its a good recession play as well. LinkedIn has some weak plays for RSS aggregation, but they can easily do something better that makes LinkedIn more like a fully customizable start page.

LinkedIn could be the big IPO story that will validate this market and the one that we've been waiting for since Google went public.