Will Facebook Messengers Bots Prove To Be App Killers?

Author

Robert Hof

April 20, 2016

Amid a flurry of announcements on live video, open source software and more at its F8 developer conference in San Francisco on Apr. 12, Facebook clearly harbored its biggest ambitions for a seemingly pedestrian service: messaging.

During a keynote by Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and other executives, the company announced a software platform for building applications, in particular bots, atop Facebook’s Messenger app. These automated conversational programs are already being used by businesses on messaging platforms from China’s WeChat to Kik and many others. But Facebook’s launch of the Messenger Platform is a bid to make messaging as important as apps themselves for all manner of online activity, from commerce to customer service.

“I’ve never met anyone who likes calling a business,” Zuckerberg said. “And no one wants to install an app for each business.”

With the new Messenger Platform, bots will be able to provide weather and traffic updates, shipping notifications, and shopping receipts via a conversational interface. A Messenger Send/Receive API, or application programming interface, will let businesses send and receive not only text messages, but images and interactive “rich bubbles” that include calls to action such as a “message me” button.

Among the early partners Facebook announced, CNN will send a daily digest of stories that gets more personalized the more you use it. And 1-800-Flowers has enabled people to orders flowers without actually having to go to an app, let alone actually dial 1-800-Flowers. Spring has launched a bot to make it easier for people to find and buy the sneakers they like and, going well beyond text, they can even scroll a carousel of product photos inside Messenger. HP has also launched a bot to make it easy to send a document to print on a network.

Facebook revealed more details about how it plans to turn Messenger into a moneymaker like other messaging apps such as WeChat have already done. Businesses will be able to buy ads in the Facebook news feed that then send people to a chat experience in Messenger. People must opt in to messages from businesses, and no ads or overt promotions will be allowed inside Messenger.

But ads of some kind are coming. Facebook product management director Frerk-Malte Feller said later that the company is looking at what kinds of ads might work directly on Messenger. And David Marcus, vice president of messaging products, also said the company is already testing what it calls “Sponsored Messages” in Messenger for businesses that have already sent a message to customers to re-engage them.

Businesses also will have a new customer matching feature to allow messages usually sent through SMS to be sent on Messenger. Not least, Facebook announced the availability of its Wit.ai Bot Engine, which will help developers that want to build more complex bots than the canned ones most common today. They will be able to divine intent from natural language, and will be able to learn over time to improve.

With the launch of the new Messenger platform, the social network has made a bold bid to lead what it views as a coming post-app world. Just as millions of apps have gradually supplanted websites as the nexus of online activity, Zuckerberg & Co. believe a new era of messaging bots will end up replacing apps on Apple’s and Google’s app stores over time as a prime way people get products and services online.

“Messaging and new platforms will unlock all kinds of applications,” Zuckerberg said. Although the focus today was on bots, Facebook hinted that there would be other applications beyond them, without specifying what they might be.

Despite the enthusiasm of the developers at the conference, some observers are not yet convinced that Messenger will prove to be as expansive a platform as Facebook clearly hopes. “Point and click is still easier than texting” for applications such as shopping, said IDC analyst Karsten Wiede. “I’m not so convinced that texting is a viable interface. It will depend on how good the chatbot is.”

Indeed, one early example Facebook trotted out, the weather bot Poncho, engages in playful conversation before providing the weather. After using it once or twice, it seems likely many people will simply want the weather, sans chatter.

“The combination of AI, machine learning and cognitive computing that it will take to make these sophisticated, frictionless experiences that top great apps today is still years away,” said Forrester Research analyst Julie Ask. Even so, she added, it’s impressive that Facebook has provided a way to take a conversation from the website or a mobile app and carry it over to Messenger, and providing ways to incorporate useful services such as boarding passes and shopping.

For their part, investors also don’t seem to be assuming Messenger bots will produce much in the way of revenues anytime soon. Facebook’s shares today rose 1.5 percent, modestly above the Nasdaq average. “We are likely more skeptical than others that the utility from Messenger’s bots will be adopted by users, but we acknowledge there is potential,” Ben Schachter, an analyst with Macquarie Research, wrote in a note to clients. “We simply want to see execution before we get too excited about the opportunity.”

Facebook isn’t alone in its ambitions, either. Google Now, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa all are vying to become the central hubs for finding and doing things online. It’s far from clear that Messenger, despite its 900 million monthly users, can outmaneuver those giants.

Adapted from my post on SiliconANGLE.

This article was written by Robert Hof from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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