UPDATED 17:38 EDT / APRIL 12 2016


Facebook bids to transform Messenger app into platform for post-app era

Amid an ambitious 10-year roadmap that Facebook Inc. laid out at its annual F8 conference for developers and business partners today, nothing sounded more ambitious than its bet on a seemingly pedestrian service: messaging.

During a morning keynote by Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and other executives, the company announced a software platform for building applications, in particular bots, atop Facebook’s Messenger app. These automated conversational programs are already being used by businesses on messaging platforms from China’s WeChat to Kik Interactive Inc. and many others. But Facebook’s launch of the Messenger Platform is a bid to make messaging as important as apps themselves for all manner of online activity, from commerce to customer service.

“I’ve never met anyone who likes calling a business,” Zuckerberg said. “And no one wants to install an app for each business.”

With the new Messenger Platform, bots will be able to provide weather and traffic updates, shipping notifications, and shopping receipts via a conversational interface. A Messenger Send/Receive API, or application programming interface, will let businesses send and receive not only text messages, but images and interactive “rich bubbles” that include calls to action such as a “message me” button.

Among the early partners Facebook announced, CNN will send a daily digest of stories that gets more personalized the more you use it. And 1-800-Flowers has enabled people to orders flowers without actually having to go to an app, let alone actually dial 1-800-Flowers. Spring has launched a bot to make it easier for people to find and buy the sneakers they like and, going well beyond text, they can even scroll a carousel of product photos inside Messenger. HP has also launched a bot to make it easy to send a document to print on a network.

Turning Messenger into a moneymaker

Facebook revealed more details about how it plans to turn Messenger into a moneymaker like other messaging apps like WeChat have already done. Businesses will be able to buy ads in the Facebook news feed that then send people to a chat experience in Messenger. People must opt in to messages from businesses, and no ads or overt promotions will be allowed inside Messenger.

But ads of some kind are coming. Facebook product management director Frerk-Malte Feller said later that the company is looking at what kinds of ads might work directly on Messenger. And David Marcus, vice president of messaging products, also said the company is already testing what it calls “Sponsored Messages” in Messenger for businesses that have already sent a message to customers to re-engage them.

Businesses also will have a new customer matching feature to allow messages usually sent through SMS to be sent on Messenger. Not least, Facebook announced the availability of its Wit.ai Bot Engine, which will help developers that want to build more complex bots than the canned ones most common today. They will be able to divine intent from natural language, and will be able to learn over time to improve.

With the launch of the new Messenger platform, the social network has made a bold bid to lead what it views as a coming post-app world. Just as millions of apps have gradually supplanted websites as the nexus of online activity, Zuckerberg & Co. believe a new era of messaging bots will end up replacing apps over time as a prime way people get products and services online.

“Messaging and new platforms will unlock all kinds of applications,” Zuckerberg said. Although the focus today was on bots, Facebook hinted that there would be other applications beyond them, without specifying what they might be.

Years away from the death of apps

Despite the enthusiasm of the developers at the conference, some observers are not yet convinced that Messenger will prove to be as expansive a platform as Facebook clearly hopes. “Point and click is still easier than texting” for applications such as shopping, said IDC Research Inc. analyst Karsten Wiede. “I’m not so convinced that texting is a viable interface. It will depend on how good the chatbot is.”

Indeed, one early example Facebook trotted out, the weather bot Poncho, engages in playful conversation before providing the weather. After using it once or twice, it seems likely many people will simply want the weather, sans chatter.

“The combination of AI, machine learning and cognitive computing that it will take to make these sophisticated, frictionless experiences that top great apps today is still years away,” said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Julie Ask. Even so, she added, it’s impressive that Facebook has provided a way to take a conversation from the website or a mobile app and carry it over to Messenger, and providing ways to incorporate useful services such as boarding passes and shopping.

For their part, investors don’t seem to be assuming Messenger bots will produce much in the way of revenues anytime soon. Facebook’s shares today rose 1.5 percent, modestly above the Nasdaq average. “We are likely more skeptical than others that the utility from Messenger’s bots will be adopted by users, but we acknowledge there is potential,” Ben Schachter, an analyst with Macquarie Research, wrote in a note to clients. “We simply want to see execution before we get too excited about the opportunity.”

Facebook isn’t alone in its ambitions, either. Google Now, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa all are vying to become the central hubs for finding and doing things online. It’s far from clear that Messenger, despite its 900 million monthly users, can outmaneuver those giants.

Doubling down on live video

For all that, messaging isn’t the only platform Facebook plans to build. The other one, at least near-term, is video. “We’re at the beginning of a golden age for online video,” Zuckerberg said.

So after Facebook made Live video widely available in late 2015, the rapid uptake has prompted the company to double down on it. Today, it announced the Live API, which will allow developers and publishers to incorporate live Facebook video into their existing production setups, and for device manufacturers such as camera makers to embed the Live API into their products.

Those features answered some of the questions video producers had about Live. Andy Smith, founder and CEO of Daily Burn, which has been testing its “365” live workout subscription service on Live, said he needed to be able to produce content using more than a smartphone. “It is exactly what we needed and we are moving forward fast on integrating it,” Stein said today.

But the main benefit to video device and content producers is Facebook’s massive scale of 1 billion users worldwide. “The most difficult part of doing live video is getting the audience,” said Jesse Hertzberg, CEO of Livestream, a live video platform whose Mevo camera Zuckerberg demonstrated onstage. “Facebook solves that problem.”

For instance, the video network Tastemade recently launched live video shows on Facebook Live. It got up to 220,000 simultaneous viewers, said Hertzberg, matching the audience size of some cable television networks.

Not least on the video front, the company announced a 360-degree camera design for virtual reality called  Surround 360 that can record two hours at up to 60 frames per second. “We’re not planning on getting into the camera business,” said Chief Product Officer Chris Cox. Instead, Facebook will open-source the software.

Facebook also emphasized the key role artificial intelligence will play in future products and services. “Our goal is to build systems that are better than people at perception,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s already happening in some places,” such as its Moments app for photo recognition and in the news feed to surface the best stories. “We’ll understand what’s in photos and articles, to find things you don’t even know you’re interested in.”

Further down the road, five to 10 years by Facebook’s reckoning, the company also views virtual and augmented reality as yet another potential platform for communications. 

“Virtual reality has the potential to be the most social platform,” Zuckerberg said. With augmented reality glasses, he added, digital objects will be able to be overlaid on top of the real-world view. “A lot of things we think of as physical objects today, like a TV, can just be apps.”

If all that sounds like a lot of disparate services, Zuckerberg made a point of showing how they fit Facebook’s core mission. “Everything we’re doing is about building technology that brings people together,” he said. “The path forward is to connect. That’s how we make progress together.”

Photo by Robert Hof

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