Microsoft goes gaga over bots
Your regular host Adam Lashinsky is out this week. Mathew Ingram is a senior writer at Fortune.
We don’t always get to choose what people remember us for, and Microsoft is no exception. While the software giant was talking Wednesday at its Build 2016 conference about the brave new world of “artificially intelligent” software agents—otherwise known as bots—all anyone of a certain age could think of was a souped-up version of Clippy.
Clippy was the annoying animated paper clip that used to pop up in Microsoft Office to help with routine tasks like creating a document or a spreadsheet. His real name was Clippit, the Office Assistant, but he was almost universally reviled and Microsoft disabled him by default in 2001.
But that was then, and this is now! And Microsoft wants everyone to know that it is really excited about the future of bots. “Conversations as a platform,” the company calls it. Microsoft is releasing a host of bots for apps like Skype (although it used the word “army,” which probably isn’t a great strategy, since it calls to mind a Terminator-style future).
If we needed further evidence of the downside of a poorly educated bot, Microsoft gave us a fantastic example last week: The company’s Tay bot, designed to communicate like a teenage girl, turned into a foul-mouthed racist less than 24 hours after being released into the wild, and had to be returned to the shop for repairs.
Needless to say, Microsoft is hoping for better things from its current crop of bots, which are designed to interface with different pieces of software and make it easier for users to do a variety of things, from booking hotel rooms to buying a new shirt.
The software company isn’t the only one betting on a bot-enabled future: Facebook has its M virtual assistant and is going to allow developers to build bots that will live inside Facebook Messenger. The corporate messaging app Slack has also moved down this road with an open API that lets almost anyone build a bot.
Everyone has their eye on the success of messaging-based commerce in China, where Tencent’s WeChat app is used by over half a billion people to do everything from finding a date to updating their bank accounts. Will Microsoft be a leader of this revolution or an also-ran? I would ask the Tay bot, but she’s still in the shop.
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BITS AND BYTES
IBM buys Salesforce consulting partner. The tech giant is paying a reported $200 million to acquire Bluewolf Group, a 500-person IT services company that specializes in deploying Salesforce cloud applications. The team will become part of IBM’s Interactive Experience, which concentrates on marketing and analytics technologies. The same IBM division snapped up three digital agencies during the first quarter. (Wall Street Journal, Re/code)
Microsoft touts Windows 10 milestone, ships augmented reality headset. The software giant has topped 270 million users for the Windows 10 operating system—besting the adoption pace set for the most popular version ever, Windows 7. Its goal is to reach 1 billion “devices” within the first three years. The update was proclaimed during a confab this week in San Francisco, where developers were encouraged to experiment with HoloLens, Microsoft’s augmented reality headset. (New York Times, Fortune)
Yahoo changes rules for board nominations. The Internet company amended its bylaws to make it simpler for shareholders to suggest board candidates—but they don’t take effect until its 2017 annual meeting cycle. Activist investor Starboard is trying to overthrow the company’s current board, which is considering potential takeover offers. Yahoo has set April 11 as the deadline for potential suitors. (Reuters)
Fidelity trims cloud valuations. The mutual fund company marked down the value of its holdings in several privately held business software companies—it reviews them on an ongoing basis. The hardest hit was Hadoop data management specialist Cloudera, which Fidelity reduced by 38%. Also under the knife: Domo, Dropbox, Docusign, and Zenefits. (Wall Street Journal)
Pinterest adds president. The social network promoted the former Facebook executive who has headed its product strategy for four years, Tim Kendall, to run marketing, sales, and operations. The position is newly created. Pinterest wants to build a bigger international audience for its online pin boards, as it prepares (quietly and slowly) for an eventual IPO. (Fortune)
Stripe, PayPal are squarely in Square’s sights. It’s time to stop thinking of Jack Dorsey’s mobile payments pioneer as just that. On Wednesday, Square introduced a new service that enables all online merchants—not just the ones using its mobile terminals—to collect payments from their websites. (Fortune)
More Americans opt for mobile banking. Apps are seriously disrupting how financial institutions interact with accountholders—43% of U.S. adults with phones used them during 2015 to check bank balances or handle other transactions, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve. That’s up 4 percentage points from the previous year. (Wall Street Journal)
John Chambers invests in drone startup. Cisco’s executive chairman is backing Airware, which develops navigation and data collection software for unmanned aerial vehicles. GE is one high-profile customer. Chambers’ investment was part of a $30 million round led by Next World Capital. (Fortune)
KLM is first airline to embrace Facebook Messenger for customer service. Passengers can check itineraries, receive boarding passes, and rebook flights on the Dutch carrier via the social network’s messaging app. Facebook wants to turn Messenger into a serious customer service and e-commerce channel, but the social network is still selective about signing up big companies. Other early customers are Hyatt Hotels and ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft. (Fortune)
The biggest IT skills gap you (probably) haven’t heard of. Tech companies are engaged in a fierce fight for sales talent. Consider: Second only to engineers, sales roles are the toughest to fill, according to a new survey of executives at 300 tech companies with 200 employees or more. About 70% say finding experienced sales talent is “very competitive,” and 80% are paying top dollar to attract more of it. Long-time Fortune career columnist Anne Fisher reports on how tech companies are adapting their recruiting strategies in response.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Working for HubSpot wasn’t hell—you’re just old by Lauren Holliday
Could blockchain have saved Lehman Brothers? by Jeff Bukhari
5 great travel apps to plan your summer vacation by Christopher Tkaczyk
T-Mobile lures new subscribers with half-off iPhone offer by Don Reisinger
Putin puts up fight against foreign software by David Meyer
ONE MORE THING
Today’s mythbuster: Young people are not fleeing Facebook. Apparently, the social network shouldn’t be as worried about alternative services like Snapchat as media experts have suggested. Facebook still has a much larger audience with U.S. adults aged 18 to 34 years old than its rivals, according to new comScore research. They also spend more time on Facebook than any other social channel. (Re/code)