SAN FRANCISCO — The bots are, for sure, coming to Facebook. After nearly a year of rumors circulating about Facebook creating a bot store and several other apps releasing such a system, the company has announced its own system for users to communicate with businesses without another human on the other line.
“I don’t know anyone who likes calling businesses,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “We think there’s got to be a better way to do this. … It shouldn’t take your full attention like a phone call should, and you shouldn’t have to download a new app.”
Facebook released Messenger Platform Tuesday, Zuckerberg announced at the company’s annual F8 developers conference. Launch partners include CNN and 1-800-Flowers. The system now lets a Messenger user get news from CNN and order flowers, for example, by chatting with a bot. “To order from 1-800-Flowers, you never have to call 1-800-Flowers again,” Zuckerberg said, inspiring laughs from the audience.
Additionally, Facebook released an application programming interface for live video, which means app developers can integrate Facebook’s live product into their own apps or websites. For example, drone manufacturers can integrate Facebook Live into their devices to live-stream video from a drone.
— Kerry Flynn (@kerrymflynn) April 12, 2016
Not every developer at F8 or beyond the conference may choose to build a company on Facebook’s chatbots, but it can be a quicker way to grow and establish a business than trying to market one's own app. “You're going to see a lot of really successful small businesses that are chatbot-based. They're easy to adopt, have a consistent interface,” said Avi Flombaum, dean and co-founder of the Flatiron School, a programming school.
Pushing downloads not just for an app but also for building experiences within the Facebook platform gained popularity after last year’s F8, when Zuckerberg announced the Messenger API. Companies like GIF search engine Giphy integrated into the app.
But chatbots are different. It’s not just a game someone can play. Messenger users can get their news and make purchases via a chatbot. Facebook is far from the first tech company to release a bot store. Chatbots are popular in WeChat, an app used by more than 1.1 billion people. Microsoft launched its own at its Build developers conference last month. Encrypted messaging app Telegram released a bot system Tuesday morning prior to F8.
For developers, it’s still a choice of whether to create its own system or build an experience within an app. “It’s very unlikely that someone is going to build the next Facebook on top of Facebook,” Flombaum said.
Facebook does have a growing ecosystem to offer developers. At F8, Zuckerberg etched out his company's 10-year plan to continue to grow the main product — such as bringing more people online with internet-beaming drones — and create more attractive services like adding live video and augmented reality. “I hope that we have the courage to see that the future is to bring people together, not push people apart," he said.
Why Facebook? More than 1.59 billion monthly active users and a plan to grow that is something to take advantage of, developers say. “With Facebook you get users, built-in distribution,” said Alex Godin, a tech entrepreneur who recently launched a consultancy startup for messaging platform Slack. “There’s an inherent risk in the business, but the thing is there’s such a reward in the distribution advantage.”