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Facebook sends a loud message about Messenger bots, but will we hear it?

TechCrunch TechCrunch 18/04/2016 Ron Miller

Every time there is a conference where we get saturated coverage from a given company, we tend to buy into their vision, at least for the couple of days the company has our undivided attention. Last week, Facebook had its turn at F8 and boy, did it push Messenger and Messenger bots hard.

Bots, for those of you who might unfamiliar with them, are pre-programmed interactions you can have with a business or media inside Messenger, a kind of conversation with a machine. They have the capacity for some intelligence and over time they can learn, based on your interactions, to get better at anticipating your needs (at least in theory).

That certainly sounds impressive and we covered it extensively here at TechCrunch (including my story on Messenger traffic channel tools in Salesforce and Zendesk). Perhaps my favorite story on the subject was from my colleague Sarah Perez, who tried the three Messenger bots featured at the announcement and came away wholly unimpressed.

As Sarah rightly pointed out, it’s early and maybe we can give them a break, but when you’re hyping something to the degree Facebook was hyping Messenger bots last week, you probably want to get the early examples right or risk losing the crucial early adopters who think this kind of technology is pretty cool.

The real question to me is do we want Messenger to be the center of our lives? Sure, I can ask a weather bot to text me the weather every day, but I can also open up the Weather app on my iPhone to get the same information quickly, and it’s a lot prettier than the text-based message the weather service sends me.

The thing is, if we started using Messenger for everything, how will we get the messages from our friends and family we actually want to see (presumably)? And then there’s the whole business of ads or what Facebook calls “sponsored messages,” which will mean you have even more extraneous stuff to wade through just to get those meaningful conversations.

Let’s not forget Messenger is just one chat client out of many out there and they aren’t the only ones using bots either. Sure Messenger has the huge audience, but how much can you use it before you start abusing that audience?

What’s more, the bot is a pretty primitive way of interacting. After years of dealing with slick, simple, highly graphical apps, in many ways bots feels like a huge step backward to the days of text-based interfaces.

Sure, it’s nice to do something in the chat client when you’re already there, especially in parts of the world where chat use is way up, but bots aren’t likely to take over from apps any time soon, as some have suggested.

Apps didn’t eliminate the web. And bots won’t kill apps. It’s another way of interacting, another channel where brands can interact with us. Let’s not try to make it more than that because Facebook had a couple of days of our undivided attention.

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