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Facebook Messenger’s Product Chief Talks About His Love Of Chat Bots

Spring's bot in Facebook's Messenger app. Spring's bot in Facebook's Messenger app.
Spring's bot in Facebook's Messenger app. Courtesy of Facebook

Facebook introduced a grab bag of new products and tools on Tuesday at its annual developer conference including 360-degree video, animated profile photos, and a tool for easily signing into apps. One of its unveilings had been hotly anticipated for weeks: “chat bots,” or software that acts as a sort of human-like assistant that answers questions for Messenger users.

Facebook (FB) is only the latest company to join the chat bot craze after Telegram, Kik, and others. But Facebook Messenger’s 900 million users means that a huge number of users and outside developers will be eager to at least try these bots out.

For users, the chat bots can help with ordering services or products and receiving personalized news digests, among other things. For companies, they can help field customer questions and requests.

Whether the bots gain traction is another question, of course.

Facebook’s opening of its doors to bots from outside developers is a natural next step after it allowed businesses to access its Messenger app last year to communicate with customers on the service. Since then, the company says that one billion messages are sent between businesses and users every month.

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Fortune took a few minutes to chat with Stan Chudnovsky, Facebook Messenger’s head of product at the company’s conference. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: How long has the bot store been in the making?

Stan Chudnovsky: We started to experiment with that pretty much after F8 developer conference last year, and we experimented with a bunch of different approaches and tried to flesh it out and think about what would be best and what the API [a software tool that lets developers connect to the Messenger app] might look like and what are the capabilities that we would have to release for the developers to be happy and creative and that kind of stuff. So it’s been a while.

Where did it come from? Did you have a lot of demand for chat bots?

We just saw that the initial experiences that we released last year [when we let businesses exchange messages with customers] were working, and users love them, and businesses love them. We asked ourselves how do we make it scalable because what we’d done before required a lot of customization on both our part and the businesses’ part. And it also required customer service agents on the businesses’ side, so we’re like, “Okay, how do we help people automate as much of that as possible?” Once you start asking simple questions you simply arrive at fairly straightforward answers.

So how many bots do you expect to see over the next year?

We are hoping for thousands and thousands.

How do you intend to make money?

We’re going to play the same playbook we always play. In the sense we just want to see how the ecosystem develops, and then we’ll figure out how we want to play into that ecosystem. But genuinely, for us right now, it’s about providing as much value to our users as possible and everything else will follow.

Any guesses as to how you might end up making money?

Advertising. Because from a guesses perspective, I’ll give you a hint: The advertising business has been a very good business for Facebook so far, and we’re going to continue to focus on advertising.

What about M, [Facebook’s virtual assistant that uses bots and humans], and its relationship to the bots?

So we are working out how exactly it’s going to play out. One important thing to say here is that the Wit.ai team, the development team behind M, is the same team that is behind the bot engines that we released today. So we are taking a lot of what worked for us in our M playbook and making it available to everybody. And, how exactly one thing will work with another, we are still working it out.

But there are a bunch of experiences that you can imagine. For example, you might be with working with M, and M might call in the bot that might be most helpful to you for example and then that bot that M invites takes over.

Now the good news is that all the functionality, we’re going to experiment like we always do with the different approaches and see what our users like—the same playbook that we play with the bot platform.

The bot engine that you just opened today, what do you envision? Why did you open that piece first?

The reason why we released that piece is just because it makes it easy for developers to build bots not only for the Messenger platform, but also for other platforms that they prefer. And it gives everybody [both Facebook and outside developers] a lot of data to play with which is also very useful.

Does this open source sharing of tools part of the strategy? You want to make these tools available and see what people do and learn from each other?

Yeah. Definitely.

What about Instant Articles and publishers in general—what’s going on with Messenger and that right now?

You saw that two of the bots that we announced are with CNN and the Wall Street Journal and we’re pretty excited about those. One of the reasons why it’s such a good experience is because we are working through Instant Articles [Facebook’s own fast-loading format for displaying news articles inside its apps].

For example, in the Wall Street Journal, you can subscribe to whatever topic you like, you can get notifications from them, you can get full articles, you can have basically a thread with the Wall Street Journal that is tailored to your needs. And it’s only going to be possible if everything happens fast and everything happens quickly and it’s fast and it’s a nice user experience and Instant Articles provide that.

We just know that users like Instant Articles and we want to make them available through Messenger as well, and bots seem the most natural way of making that possible.

How do you think these new experiences are going to affect the sharing or reading of news in the News Feed? Do you think it’s going to overtake it, how do you think that’s going to be?

We think it’s completely complimentary. It adds yet another venue for our news organization partners to distribute their content. We don’t see it as competing at all. It’s just very, very different.

In the News Feed, it’s more like discovery. What do you see there? You see the articles that [Facebook spokeswoman Jillian Stefanki], for example, liked and read yesterday and you say, “Oh, I like that topic, I’m going to read it.” And you tap on it and you go to Instant Articles and you read about topic A. And that might be a topic that you were not interested in before, but you now know about because you discovered it through Jillian.

In Messenger, the experience will be different where you decided which topics you want to hear about from particular news outlets. You design that bot to tailor to your needs. We see it as completely complimentary and completely an addition. If anything, we feel like it’s going to give you guys more eyeballs.

What is your favorite bot so far?

I like them all! It’s like asking me who is my favorite child. What is my favorite bot? It was a lot of work over the last two weeks to get them all to work because a lot of stuff was coming in at the last minute. So, I say we got the news bots to work first, so I was worried about them the least and for the longest, and so I like them.