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Facebook's Messenger bots are a compelling alternative to apps

Engadget Engadget 13/04/2016 Nicole Lee

© Provided by Engadget

After several months of speculation, Facebook finally announced today that it would be officially integrating chatbots into Messenger. It's already started doing so with a few partners like Uber, Lyft and KLM, but today's announcement means that a lot more businesses are joining the party. And it's not just for customer support or tracking online orders -- though it can certainly be used for that too -- these chatbots also offer services that range from delivering top news stories to the local weather. In fact, two of its launch partners are a CNN news bot and Poncho, a weather bot that masquerades as a friendly cat.

But before I get into talking about those particular bots, let's go over how you find them in first place. First, you have to download the latest version of Messenger -- it should be available on both Android and iOS. Once you launch the app, you'll find that there's now a persistent search bar at the top. Tap it and you can start searching for your bot of choice.

Peter Martinazzi, a product manager for Messenger, told me that eventually they'll start populating the search area with bot suggestions based on previously used bots. Right now there are a few dozen or so bots available at launch, with more to be added in the coming months. (We'll have a long list of available bots shortly). Once you select a bot, you'll see a splash page along with a description of what the bot does. Underneath is a "Get started" button. Hit that and the bot will start talking to you.

At the time of writing, I only managed to try out the CNN bot as well as the aforementioned Poncho. CNN sent me a greeting, along with instructions on how to use it -- I can either type in a few keywords to look up certain stories or I can choose between a "Top Stories" and a "Stories for you" button. The latter defaults to just popular stories for now; though the idea is that the app might soon learn your preferences over time.

After selecting "Top Stories," the CNN bot returned a list of five articles to me laid out horizontally; you can just swipe left or right to navigate through the stories. This layout makes a lot more sense than the beta Bing News bot I tried on Skype, which returned vertical search results -- a horizontal layout doesn't hog up the whole screen, thus letting you see more of the previous conversation.

Each CNN story had its own "chat bubble" complete with image, headline and three options: "Read story," "Get a summary" or "Ask CNN." "Read story" simply kicks you over to the CNN mobile page to read the whole story, while "Get a summary" prompts a quick one to two paragraph summary of the article. "Ask CNN" simply asks you for the aforementioned keywords to get more specific results. On the whole, I thought the bot worked out pretty well considering it's brand new. I especially liked the news summary response that gives me a brief overview of the news without having to read the whole story. Still, you can't really get too sassy with it -- typing "Hello" and "Goodbye" will just return results that have those words in the headline.

Poncho, on the other hand, is a little glimpse into how chatbots can be funny and sassy. Once I hit "Get Started," on it, it pretended as if it was waking up from a long slumber. It purred. Then it identified itself as a "weathercat," at which point I could either respond with "Weathercat?" or "Um, okay." It felt like I was in some sort of choose-your-own-adventure game.

It then asked me my location, at which point I replied "San Francisco." It took a few tries -- Poncho just launched a few hours ago and is still fairly new -- but it eventually gave me the current temperature and weather condition (59 degrees Fahrenheit and mostly cloudy, if you must know). You can even ask it to convert to Celsius and it'll do so. I asked it to tell me a joke, to which it responded, "Excuse me, I'm not just here for your entertainment." "Haha," I replied. Then it said "Hehehe." I was charmed despite myself.

I also played around briefly with the WSJ bot (get the latest updates on stocks) plus the 1-800-Flowers bot (order flowers for your sweetie right on Messenger) and both worked well enough. I tried to get the Healthtap bot working to see if it could diagnose a phantom cramp, but it wasn't quite ready at the time. Also, if you'd rather not get any more messages from a bot, you can always block them. Another concern are sponsored messages -- Facebook has to make money on this whole bot thing somehow -- but you're free to block those too.

As for response time, well, it varies. I actually got responses pretty quickly -- just a few seconds after I sent the initial text. But I've read on Twitter and elsewhere that people have experienced minutes-long wait times, which isn't ideal at all if you're waiting for an update on something like breaking news or the weather. My guess is this is all just teething problems right now, but who's to say what the lag time will be once more people start using these bots.

On the whole though, I found bots on Messenger to be surprisingly fun. I liked that the CNN bot and the Poncho bot felt so different -- one is clearly utilitarian, while the other was funny yet useful. I'm looking forward to see how the whole bot experience would feel with other businesses, like restaurants, banks and actual choose-your-own-adventure games. Imagine if someone created Zork for Messenger. I'd play the heck out of that. As long as I don't get eaten by a grue.

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