Mark Zuckerberg has said that Facebook thinks a new product is ready to become a real business only once it has one billion users. The company’s Messenger app isn’t quite there yet- Zuckerberg said on Tuesday the app has 900 million people using it each month – but he’s already started laying out his vision for the software’s commercial future. And the future, it seems, is bots.
The kinds of bots Zuckerberg is referring to are software programmes that can discern what people type in plain language, then provide an appropriate response. Zuckerberg said at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in San Francisco that the company is rolling out tools that will allow other businesses to build such bots to live within Messenger.
In one example he showed from the stage, a CNN bot sent out a daily news update and responded to a user’s messages with information about a specific topic. In another, Zuckerberg requested a bouquet of flowers by sending a message to 1-800-Flowers.
Facebook has already lined up more than 30 partners, including Bank of America, Burger King, and Staples. This list gives perhaps a clearer picture of Facebook’s moneymaking goals. If the company can coax people into ordering flowers, hamburgers, and office supplies by sending texts to helpful robotic assistants on Messenger, it becomes an important driver of commerce. And Facebook puts itself in a position to take a cut of those transactions someday. The social network, however, hasn’t yet outlined how it plans to make money from bots. Maybe it’s waiting until Messenger actually gets to a billion users. “Today, there is no revenue,” David Marcus, the head of Facebook Messenger, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV’s Cory Johnson on Tuesday. “Gradually, we’ll build monetisation on the platform.” Facebook’s bot strategy goes beyond grabbing a cut of digital transactions. It’s also a way to wrest more control of its users’ mobile experiences away from companies such as Apple and Google, which make the dominant smartphone platforms. Before the shift to mobile apps, Facebook successfully carved out a slice of the software developer economy with FarmVille and other Web apps that live on the social network.
Facebook has been trying to claw back at this territory for years. The most direct attempt came in 2013 with Facebook Home, a special user interface for Android that replaced the home screen with a more Facebook-centric experience. Then as now, Zuckerberg criticised the current smartphone experience for being too reliant on apps. The company designed software built to reengineer the phone around people’s social contacts, and it reached agreements with AT&T and HTC to sell devices preloaded with Facebook Home. The phones flopped. It turned out that Apple’s and Google’s hold on the smartphone market is pretty strong. “Every spring Facebook holds F8 and says, ‘This is what interaction on smartphones will look like!’ and a few weeks later, Apple and Google say, ‘Look, sorry, kid, but …'” wrote Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz in October. “It’s not Facebook’s platform to change.”