By @TheMarkDalton

Messaging platforms have come a long way over the past number of years. Remember when we used to pay per text message sent? Nuts! Now we have a range of platforms from Facebook Messenger to WhatsApp, or Twitter’s Direct Messages and the newly launched Chat 2.0 on Snapchat. We also have Google Hangouts and iMessage though very few people actually send me texts through the native application anymore.

2016 looks set to be a huge year for messaging applications. Facebook looks set to announce the arrival of chatbots on their Messenger platform. Businesses can’t afford the resources to build chatbots themselves so Facebook is planning on providing developers with API tools to build chatbots and live web plug-ins for business clients. They should be announced at F8 this coming week.

A number of developers say that Facebook has not formalised a name for the new functions on the Messenger platform however it is expected that Facebook will refer businesses to the new Messenger developments and a more official partner programme could come later.

What we do know is that Facebook has been working with B2B developers so far. Now we can see why Facebook forced us to download a standalone Messenger app and why they forced us off using Messenger in the native app. They have plans far beyond the scope of what they want your average messenger platform to be.

Chatbots will provide an automated response for businesses when fielding messages from potential customers. So basically you will be able to use Facebook Messenger to simply text Uber for a ride home, or text a restaurant to make a reservation, or text a store to see if they have an item in stock. Now I don’t know about some of you but that sounds freaking awesome to me!

Facebook is also working with Live Chat developers who can build plugins for “Message Us” contact buttons for websites. This means that instead of having to call a business or having to email them an wait for a response you will simply be able to text them directly from Messenger. Integrated into the live chat system will be read receipts and typing indicators.

It is unknown at the moment how Facebook will choose to monetise the new features yet. They may decide to charge businesses for it or they could go down the route of allowing ads inside the messenger platform when conversing with a chatbot. However, someone has already beaten Facebook to the punch as popular messaging app Kik has launched their “Bot Shop” on 5th April.

The Kik Bot Store is launching with 16 bots including the Weather Channel, H&M, Vine and more. Kik will allow developers to add their own as long as they comply with the terms and conditions of the platform (basically no porn allowed).

You can access the bot store on Kik by tapping the magnifying glass on the top right of the app and then pressing the “find people” button. From here you can press the bot store button and start chatting away. The weather app is accurate and intelligent enough to remember your location. However you can only press certain commands in the bot interface for the weather. Type something manually and it will not compute.

The Vine bot simply asks what kind of Vines you would like to see and then sends you something that it thinks you might like. The H&M bot asks a few questions about you and then starts to recommend items based on your responses. If you want to buy something then you get booted out of the app over to the H&M website however I would imagine that it won’t be much longer until you can carry out the entire transaction on the Kik app.

This could well be the next big step forward in how we carry out tasks online. At the moment, chatbots are basically trying to replace individual apps. Instead of having to open the Uber app you will simply be able to shoot them a text message. It is the height of being ultra convenient. At the moment we are only scratching the surface.

A San Francisco startup called Assist is a chatbot that can be used to get a taxi, order food, buy baseball tickets, schedule a haircut and even send flowers – all done by a single chat contact. So what could go wrong?

Well the only major potential for things to go really wrong is that you are putting your trust into the hands of an automated system. However, even AI systems can be taught all the wrong things.

In March, Microsoft launched a Twitter chatbot called “Tay” which was supposed to have conversations with users and sound like a “millennial”. Instead, it learned how to love Hitler and hate feminism.

Tay is a lesson in how things can go drastically wrong with AI. Thankfully Kik’s bots are not making the same mistake. While Kik may be the first out of the gate, all eyes will be on the F8 conference this week to see what Facebook decides to do with their own bot store.

 

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