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Facebook is poised to take the chatbot world by storm

Engadget Engadget 14/04/2016 Nicole Lee
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Even though chatbots have been around for quite some time -- remember the SmarterChild bot on AIM? -- they've only recently become the darling of the tech world. Just two weeks ago, Microsoft announced its "Conversations as a Platform" initiative, wherein it plans to build bots into Skype to help you do things like book hotels or order a pizza from Domino's. This week, Facebook unveiled its own bot platform for Messenger, which aims to do the same things. At first glance, the two seem similar, but there is one big difference. While the demos we saw at Build are still being built, many of the ones shown at F8 are already live.

Of course, some of this is because Facebook was wise enough to seed its SDK to developers months in advance. But it's also because the company laid out its groundwork for bots in Messenger as early as last year. In 2015, Facebook unveiled its Messenger for Businesses program, which would allow consumers like you and me to talk with businesses on Messenger. You could chat with Hyatt to ask for more towels in your room, or with Sprint to find out why your network is slow. Of course, you'd be speaking to a customer support agent rather than a bot, but it was a starting point. On top of that, Facebook has been working with partners like Uber, Lyft and KLM to try out an early version of a bot system, where you could request a car or book a flight through Messenger.

"These [programs] really formed what is being built today," said Peter Martinazzi, a product manager for Messenger. "We did a really slow and deliberate approach over the past year, learning along the way." The Messenger for Businesses initiatives, he said, have been successful. "People have messaged businesses twice as much as they did before."


The result is a healthy roster of partners right when Messenger's bot platform launches. Big national brands like Bank of America and Burger King are already on board, while news outlets like CNN and The Wall Street Journal are already using the service to deliver headlines on the fly. Microsoft, on the other hand, only had a few Bing bots on Skype when they announced its platform. It seems that even though Microsoft announced its bot platform two weeks before Facebook did, the latter is already well ahead.

That's not to say that Microsoft didn't already have a few bot initiatives going: It's experimented with Tay, the infamous Twitter bot, and has deployed several thousand bots on WeChat, a popular chat app in China, before having them pulled down. Indeed, Tay is actually a spinoff of Xiaoice, a bot that's been on WeChat, Weibo and Line (two other popular Asian chat apps) for a few years.

But none of that is helpful if Microsoft doesn't get help from developers. Facebook, on the other hand, already has a healthy relationship with plenty of companies and brands thanks to Pages and advertising initiatives, so it wasn't too much of a leap to get many of them on board the Messenger bot plan, too. Companies already know that Facebook is where the money is. Developing bots for Messenger ahead of competitors like Skype is a no-brainer.

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