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Speculation is increasing that Facebook will open up its Messenger chat service to outside businesses, potentially as early as its F8 conference on April 12-13.
Facebook won’t comment on its plans, but such a move could open the floodgates to a revolution of sorts in computing. Chat messaging so far has been mainly between two individuals, devoid of a way to interact with companies, whether for retail or other kinds of services.
Above: Illustration of chatbot on Gupshup’s site
“April’s going to be a hot month,” said Mike Roberts, head of Messenger at Kik, the popular messaging app used by more than 8 million people in the U.S., referring to Facebook’s anticipated move to open up its 800 million users to businesses.
“It’s huge,” agreed Beerud Sheth, chief executive of Gupshup, a messaging tech company. He called chat “a once in a decade paradigm shift,” where only now is the infrastructure really ready for commerce-related transactions to happen within the chat format.
There are more than a few hints that Facebook is about to go big.
Take, for example, the quiet appearance within Messenger three weeks ago of a way to play chess with a friend within the chap app. You simply choose a friend, type “@fbchess play” into the chat box, et voila — a chessboard appears in the window. When I tried it, I was assigned white, and I followed the commands (explained in @fbchess help) to make the moves. The game was first mentioned in a conversation on Reddit.
Then another Messenger bot, @dailycute, surfaced. Again, you select your friend, and the bot delivers up photos of cute animals. This one was first cited by another Reddit user. Notably, this time there was a business associated with the bot. The image contained an URL, along with a link to the image site Imgur where the images are hosted. When I clicked on the Imgur link, I was taken to a page to download the app. See what’s going on there? Imgur can offer you an experience with Facebook’s Messenger, and presumably drive business back to its own site.
These all come after reports of a secret chatbot SDK Facebook released to help developers, an Uber experiment to offer rides through a chatbot, and the appearance of independent bots such as Assist.
Above: Another depiction of the chat process on Gupshup
These examples aren’t proof, per se, that Facebook is going to roll out bots more aggressively. They are clearly tests, and the tests offer very different experiences. Facebook may still decide to roll things out much more slowly, especially the monetization side.
But most observers believe that things will get hot very soon.
Kik has experimented for at least a year and a half with chatbots (with companies like Vans Shoes and MTV) and says it has learned some key lessons about what works and what doesn’t. Kik CEO Ted Livingston just posted on VentureBeat that these experiences are best when users can get useful services right away.
But outside factors are ratcheting up the pressure on Facebook to move, too. There’s Telegram, the mobile messaging app that has exploded in popularity, surpassing 100 million users a month after launching less than three years ago. The Berlin-based company has gained traction partly by offering strong encryption, but also partly because it opened itself up as an open platform for bots, providing an API to developers to create any bot they choose. Thousands of bots now exist, offering everything from trivia questions and dating to polling and Github updates. Telegram said it is working to release an payment API to allow businesses to make money.
In China, WeChat has led the way to make the messaging interface an operating system for people’s lives in that country, as we reported last week. Facebook is the only company with scale to do that in the West.
Telegram and WeChat are only half the story. While Telegram is opening itself up to bots, there are scores of other messaging platforms, such as Twitter, Slack, and WeChat, that businesses will also want to interact with via bots.
So another company, Silicon Valley messaging technology company Gupshup, announced last week that it would help companies actually build bots. Developers can use its new Gupshup.io engine to insert bots into a range of messaging platforms, from SMS to Slack, Teamchat, Twitter and WeChat. It does not support Facebook’s Messenger or Whatsapp, because Facebook hasn’t offered an SDK yet, the company said (correcting another report that got that wrong).
Gupshup said its messaging bots are meant to be omnichannel and embeddable into apps and websites alike.
All of this suggests that the time is ripe for Facebook to make a big move.
VentureBeat’s Mobile Summit is coming up on April 4-5, just a week before F8, and we’re devoting a portion of our event to messaging and commerce, with a working session committed to dissecting how messaging is going to open up to businesses. Kik’s Roberts will be one of the chairs of that session. The executive-level event is invite only and focused exclusively on how to grow on mobile. You can apply for admission here.
Hope to see you there!