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Bot Brigade Set to Arrive at Facebook’s F8 Conference

April 12, 2016, 3:51 PM UTC
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduces a new messenger platform at the F8 summit in San Francisco, California, on March 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Joshn Edelson — AFP/Getty Images

Is the tech world suddenly obsessed with bots because they have a catchy, futuristic-sounding name or because they are the future of everything?

Probably a mix of both. After months of buildup, the hype around bots—simple apps programmed to take action when certain conditions are met—will reach its apex later today when Facebook is expected to announce a “bot store” for its Messenger app at its F8 developer conference.

The bot brigade—including Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT), messaging app startups Kik and Slack, and others—envisions a future where everyone interacts with businesses through the apps they’re already using. Don’t bother firing up the Uber app, just order a car from inside Slack. Don’t bother searching for makeup tips on YouTube, ask Sephora inside Kik. Or, hypothetically, track your Amazon order from inside Facebook Messenger. When we initiate these interactions, there isn’t a customer service rep on the other end. There’s a bot!

Bots could be the new apps. But for that to work, every company—Sephora, Amazon, Uber, etc.—must build its own bot. That’s why Facebook is rallying developers to join its bot ecosystem today, and Microsoft stirred up hype around its bot-building tools in late March. Slack even created an $80 million fund to invest in bot startups.

The big selling point to developers is that bots are cheaper and simpler to build and distribute than apps. Once you build a bot, it’s easy to port it to other messaging apps.

Business bots are integral to Facebook’s plan for making money on 800 million-user Messenger and billion-user WhatsApp. Advertising is too invasive for these one-on-one messaging services, so Facebook can’t follow the same path to profits.

Facebook has been talking about artificial intelligence, payments, and customer service for over a year now, but none of those things have garnered as much excitement as the recent hype about bots. Must be the catchy, futuristic-sounding name.