SAN FRANCISCO - Since the dawn of the Internet age, basic e-mail has remained the online world's version of comfort food -- familiar and unchanging.
But the rapid rise of other forms of electronic communication are transforming e-mail from a stand-alone application into one that incorporates mobile text, chat, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter and online document sharing.
One measure of that transformation is Facebook's move last month to roll out a "modern messaging system" built atop the company's wildly popular social-networking platform. Analysts say that may prove to be a major catalyst for that evolution, both for consumers and for businesses.
"We believe it represents the long-term co-evolution and convergence of e-mail with social media and other messaging types, whereby e-mail becomes more social and social media takes on e-mail attributes," according to a soon-to-be released Gartner research report.
E-mail may not totally disappear, but experts say in five to 10 years, it may look far different than it does today.
"Within five years, we think the questions about social networking versus e-mail will be largely moot, as the two elements will have been fused together," said the report by Gartner analysts Matt Cain and Ray Valdes.
E-mail thrived, after all, because it was one of the first forms of Internet sharing for the masses. It is still the third most popular online activity, behind social networking and gaming, although younger Internet users are turning to other more immediate electronic communication forms, such as texting from mobile phones.
Palo Alto's Facebook last month began slowly rolling out a revamped messaging system that reflects that shift. The Facebook Messages system gets rid of subject lines and instead is designed to group messages into a more manageable inbox of "conversations" between individual friends.
And that same "social inbox" seamlessly gathers all types of messages, whether they are sent by text, chat or traditional e-mail programs. Facebook's core feature -- status updates -- are already like sending group messages.
"We don't think that a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail," Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said when he introduced Facebook Messages.
From a competitive business standpoint, Facebook Messages "opens a new front in the prolonged war" for consumer attention, the Gartner report said. "Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo want consumers to spend as much time as possible on their sites to maximize advertising revenues."
From a human standpoint, social e-mail may be the answer to that overwhelming stream of communications -- and distractions -- that technology now provides, said Yaacov Cohen, chief executive officer of enterprise softwaremaker Mainsoft Corp. of Milpitas.
One study shows the average worker switches applications 37 times per hour, which works out to only about two minutes spent on any given task, Cohen said.
"To a certain degree, that's clashing with our basic humanity," Cohen said. "What people now are starting to realize is the cost of always being connected and what does it mean to be constantly interrupted. Each of these services by themselves is useful, but nobody really thought about the impact of having dozens of them running at the same time."
With an inbox allowing more "social collaboration," the transformation has already started within the businesses software market. Firms like IBM, Novell and Salesforce have introduced or are developing tools that combine social messaging, sharing and collaboration. Google has also tried to layer social networking into its Gmail service.
There are also companies like startup MediaFriends Inc., which launched an iPhone app called HeyWire that combines mobile texting, instant messaging, chat, Facebook and Twitter.
Mainsoft recently launched a "social e-mail" product for businesses called Harmon.ie, which layers calendars, Web search, social networking, instant messaging, Google Document sharing and Microsoft SharePoint collaboration and content management tools onto standard e-mail.
The program allows a document file to be dragged directly from e-mail to a common folder to be updated by several people instead of being attached and distributed to an e-mail message.
Direct product seller Amway Corp. rolled out Harmon.ie in its corporate headquarters in Ada, Mich., in June, and has already seen a 40 percent reduction in the number of spreadsheets and other attachments to e-mail, said Sandy Harvey, an Amway senor analyst for messaging and collaboration.
Yammer Inc., a 2-year-old San Francisco startup that also layers enterprise social-networking products on top of e-mail, last week reeled in another $25 million round of financing. It already has more than 1.5 million users.
Consumer-driven demand is part of the reason Facebook's first stab at a unified messaging system is noteworthy, said analyst Rob Koplowitz of Forrester Research Inc. Facebook has more than 500 million users, and they are increasingly bringing social networking into the workplace, a trend that has accelerated in the past five years.