The latest big-deal business technology with a silly name is here, and it's called the "chatbot."
Facebook wants to open up its Messenger instant-messaging app as a platform for business, and will announce plans -- including an API that businesses can connect to -- at its F8 conference Tuesday, according to a report on TechCrunch.
If you've used Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) Siri, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) Now, or the Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) Echo, you've used a chatbot. You make a query in natural language, and the chatbot responds with the information you want. (Unless there's a glitch. Which there often is.) Chatbots can also be used with text chat, which is very popular with the WeChat service run by Tencent in China, where chatbots are a primary channel for e-commerce, including making hotel reservations, doctor's appointments, buying movie tickets, and shopping. Facebook and other cloud providers hope that trend will catch on elsewhere.
Facebook will refer businesses to partners who will help businesses build automatic response systems for customers, TechCrunch says. The chatbots will be able to go beyond text by using "Structured Messages," that can include images, descriptions, a URL, and a call to action such as visiting a website, viewing an e-commerce order, or making a restaurant reservation.
It's unclear at this point what the business model will be for Messenger chatbots, but they represent the possibility of an alternative to advertising revenue for Facebook. Facebook could get a cut of transactions made via Messenger, similar to the way Apple charges a premium for transactions through apps.
For businesses, Messenger represents a new channel to connect to customers, one that does not require them to download an app.
Microsoft is also big on chatbots, according to a report on Bloomberg.
However, Microsoft recently fell on its face with a chatbot experiment. When Microsoft launched a chatbot named Tay on Twitter, white supremacists quickly figured out a way to get Tay to parrot back bigoted messages.
Microsoft has had better luck in China, with a bot called Xiaoice available for 18 months with 40 million users, averaging 23 exchanges per session, according to the extensive Bloomberg report.
Google is also working on a new generation of bots, and the corporate messaging app Slack has its own built-in bots.
Chatbots are nothing new -- an early example, the ELIZA program, dates back to the 1960s, and Microsoft had a bot fiasco that predates Tay -- the infamous Clippy animated paperclip of the 1990s.
At Microsoft's Build conference last month, the company demonstrated a bot that would let users order Domino's pizza.
— Mitch Wagner, , West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading.