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Facebook acquired start-up assets for mail overhaul

Zenbe, a mail and messaging start-up, sold some of its intellectual property to Facebook in preparation for the social network's e-mail overhaul.

It wasn't revealed during Monday's announcement, but it turns out that Facebook's big "it's not e-mail" messaging overhaul involved one of the talent acquisitions that the company has become known for lately.

On Oct. 8, a start-up called Zenbe announced that it had shut down its Zenbe Mail e-mail product. CNET heard from a source last month that the reason was that Facebook had acquired part of Zenbe's intellectual property and brought some of the start-up's employees on board, but the deal was not clear at the time and neither Facebook nor Zenbe was able to comment.

Zenbe plans to formally acknowledge the Facebook acquisition later on Tuesday: that Zenbe itself was not acquired by Facebook, just the Zenbe Mail product and three engineers who worked on it; and that Zenbe will continue to build new products. Zenbe will continue to be based in New York.

"You may have heard this week that Facebook is launching a new unified messaging product," Zenbe CEO Alan Chung wrote in a statement that was printed later Tuesday morning on the company blog. "We here at Zenbe are happy to have played a small role in this: a few months ago, three of our engineers joined Facebook as part of a talent acquisition. We believe that messaging and collaboration on the web are on the cusp of a new wave of innovation, and we're excited to be playing a role in that."

It's working on a new product called Shindig, which "uses the power of the Facebook Social Graph to let people share photos with their real friends, in real time, in real locations." That'll add to its Zenbe Lists task-management product, a Foursquare app called Blacktop, and a collaboration tool called Shareflow.

Many of Facebook's recent heavy product overhauls this year have come from acquisitions of companies and the subsequent hiring of their founders--and many of those companies have in turn been shut down. Divvyshot, a photo-sharing service, was acquired in April and the founding team oversaw the relaunch of Facebook Photos; Hot Potato, a "check-in" service, was purchased this summer and founder Justin Shaffer spearheaded the Facebook Groups facelift before then moving on to its Facebook Places product.

Facebook has also acquired start-ups NextStop and well as the larger FriendFeed, which it left intact but with minimal engineering resources. FriendFeed co-founder Bret Taylor is now Facebook's chief technology officer.

The Zenbe acquisition was even more about the talent than usual. The amount of intellectual property acquired was small, and it was hardly a situation in which the Zenbe product became a Facebook product instead. Facebook executives said at Monday's Facebook Messages overhaul that the revamp had been in the works for over a year; the talent acquired in the Zenbe deal had only been on staff at Facebook for a short number of months.

"We can confirm that we hired three employees from Zenbe earlier this year as part of a talent acquisition," Facebook said in a statement.

This post was last updated at 9:38 a.m. PT.