Facebook Messenger bots are here and they want to kill apps – Mashable

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As predicted, developers can now build bots inside Facebook Messenger.

The announcement was one of the highlights of Facebook’s jam-packed F8 schedule and it further proves what many have been predicting for a long time, bots are the future.

Right now, the bots that are available are more limited – and the discovery process isn’t perfect – but it’s clear now, more than ever, that bots make a lot of sense.

Beyond that, Messenger’s bot strategy speaks to a few realities of modern computing and communication.

Don’t make me talk to you on the phone

Like many millenials, I don’t spend a lot of time on the phone. I talk to sources and companies for my job, but most of my personal communication takes place through text (or if I’m feeling especially outgoing, Snapchat).

With text, I can maintain a number of conversations at once – and I can reply asynchronously. Increasingly, when I do get on the phone – and it’s not for work – I find myself talking to customer service agents, where the experience often leaves a lot to be desired.

In his keynote demonstration of Messenger bots, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pointed out the perks of using the 1–800-Flowers bot to order flowers, as opposed to actually having to speak to a florist to arrange a delivery.

A few weeks ago, I had an issue with one of my credit cards. My bank reached out to me over text, but I still had to call in to confirm that I actually did buy a rose gold iPad. While waiting on hold to talk to a human, my bank told me I could do this whole process online.

Now, this wasn’t actually true because the website kept telling me I had to call the bank – but the point remains that many of the reasons I would call a bank (like to check a balance or to confirm the validity of a transaction) are things that can be done through bots. And that’s why I’m happy that my bank, Bank of America, is going to have its own Messenger bot. Maybe next time I buy an iPad I can confirm the purchase there, rather than having to call in.

This is one of the services Zendesk and Salesforce are counting on. The customer service-focused companies plan to link bot functionality with their existing backends.

That opens up potential down the line for custom interactions – provided of course, users respond to bots the way Facebook and other companies think they will.

Apps aren’t dead, but app fatigue is real

As Mashable App Reporter Karissa Bell astutely pointed out, one of the solutions Facebook seems to be trying to solve with its new bot platform is the issue of app fatigue and app engagement.

Apps aren’t dead, but app fatigue is a very real thing. The problem many companies face today is actually getting users to download and install their app.

And Facebook understands that. Don’t get me wrong, apps themselves aren’t going away, but apps don’t have the appeal they once did — for developers or users.

‘There’s an app for that’ is still true, but installing apps can be a pain

Apple’s mantra of “there’s an app for that” is still true, but it’s also true that fewer users want to go through the hassle of installing your app.

Users don’t want to install an app and for developers, even getting users to find or discover their app can be a nightmare. Standing out amongst millions of apps is difficult and it isn’t getting any easier.

For years, Facebook has worked to make its core app work better with other apps – but you still had to have those apps installed. Bots change that paradigm. To use the Poncho weatherbot, I don’t need to have the Poncho iOS app installed. The same is true for the various commerce bots.

In this way, at least right now, the barrier to entry of actually engaging with those services is now lower than it has ever been. For commerce brands – who have struggled to get users to use their apps – this could help make the experience more seamless.

A seamless experience is usually also a more engaged experience, and Facebook lives and dies on engagement. 

I can’t help but see Tuesday’s announcement’s as Facebook trying to push developers away from standalone mobile apps and toward building bots.

Of course, it’s important to understand that even if Facebook is trying to kill the app metaphor, developers still need to build an app — or at least, the backend of an app.

Like an app, a bot has backend services that call certain functions and can lead to other calls. It may not be as advanced as a standalone app and its UI and UX are different, but this is still an app. It’s just that the logic is running remotely on the cloud and not locally on a phone.

Security and spam concerns

Image: Facebook

Companies are quick to jump on the bot train in hopes of building greater engagement with users. Of course, users might not always want that engagement.

During F8, Facebook’s VP of Messaging Products David Marcus was quick to point out that there is block functionality built into the product – so that you can shut off a bot that becomes annoying. But it’s not clear what – if anything – Facebook will do to discourage bots from behaving in a way that is overly intrusive or annoying.

In an interview with Mashable‘s Bell at F8, Messenger Director of Product Management Peter Martinazzi said that “we want to make sure you’re really in control of what interactions are happening.”

Of course, a secondary concern to spam is security. 

A secondary concern to spam is security

Facebook itself may protect the information you give it, but there is always a risk with opening a platform to other parties. How those parties use that information is something users have to be cognizant of.

It would be a nightmare scenario for Facebook to have bots appear that phished information from users or scammed them in other ways. 

Martinazzi said Facebook has “a lot of [security] policies” in place for bots and that those policies are “one of the main reasons [bots] are rolling out slowly right now.” He says that the reason this is starting as a beta is because “we want to make sure we have the best ways to enforce violations as they come up.”

That’s also one of the reasons that right now, the process of actually using a Messenger bot is more user-driven. Users have to initiate interactions with a business.

That’s all well and good, but we still have questions about how Facebook will enforce data retention and treatment policies amongst its developers.

Plus, even though users have to initiate threads with bots now, that won’t always be the case. The promise of bots is that they can interact with us, too. If I always have to open up a separate chat to engage with a bot, I might as well just open up an app. I understand the need to keep things separate in the beginning, but eventually, this will change. Facebook needs to make sure it has the right tools and policies in place to protect its users.

Right now, developers who build for the platform are vetted – though Facebook wouldn’t tell us exactly how that works. There is a trade-off between getting as many developers to build for your platform as possible and making sure that the bots they build aren’t violating any policies.

We’re early in this process and I don’t want to caution users against engaging with bots but I do think that security is a topic that needs more discussion. I also think Facebook needs to be very clear with its policies about what kind of behavior will be banned.

Security is a topic that needs more discussion.

Because nothing will kill a bot revolution faster than all bots turning into spam.

Will anyone use this?

I’m excited about bots. I think they can change and automate the way things are done. The customer service implications are obvious – but I also see bots as a new language for building new kinds of apps.

That said, there an unanswered question: Do users actually want to engage this way? 

The trick with bots is to make the experience serendipitous and useful. If I have to ask a bot too many questions or phrase things in a certain way to get an expected result, I might as well just open an app or my web browser and perform the task the old-fashioned way.

But the promise of bots – that paired with natural language processing and AI – is that the a-ha experience I get with Amazon Alexa will be visible in my favorite chat app.

I, for one, welcome our new bot overlords.

Karissa Bell contributed to this article. 

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Facebook Messenger bots are here and they want to kill apps – Mashable