Can the enterprise save Facebook bots?

Business users may get more out of automated conversations than consumers

Facebook's bumpy introduction of bot capabilities inside its Messenger service may be saved by an unlikely candidate: business users.

While the company's bot platform for consumers has been more widely discussed than its business counterpart, support for automated conversation partners also extends to the company's Workplace service for businesses. In that context, users can interact with bots to perform functions at work, like getting a budget approved by their supervisor.

Business-focused bots have more utility than their consumer counterparts at this point, said analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy. It's one thing to run through an expense report with a bot, and quite another to order a pizza. There's also more room for an imperfect user experience in the land of enterprise software, in Moorhead’s view.

"Ironically, I see a lot more value for [bots in] the workplace than I do with consumers," he said.

When it launched last year, Facebook's support for bots was hotly anticipated, and the platform launched with a great deal of fanfare. But early bots fell flat. Consumers didn't use the functionality participating businesses offered to them through Messenger, and some of Facebook's early partners have bailed on the bot platform.

Facebook has since dialed back its public messaging about bots and acknowledged that the first version of the platform wasn't quite ready for prime time.

When other Facebook products have met a reception as frosty as this one, the company has often left them to die, Gartner Research vice president Brian Blau said. But the company has doubled down on Messenger, which shows that Facebook really wants to see it succeed as more than just a messaging app.

"I can say this: There are a lot of things that Facebook doesn't pay attention to, and it's the opposite with Messenger," Blau said. "They're trying to take it from the basic user platform into something that's much more accommodating for business and for different users and things like that."

New functionality introduced Tuesday gives bots the ability to participate in group chats and contextually embed content into messages. Businesses can also set up simple smart replies for frequently asked questions, even if they don't want to set up a full-fledged bot. Facebook also launched a new Discover tab that's supposed to help showcase the best Messenger bots for people to interact with.

Bot developers can also generate special QR codes that trigger bot functions when scanned. That's designed for situations like sports arenas, where teams would want bots to provide interactive help based on the location of the user.

The new Discover tab looks a lot like an app store for bots. Users will be able to see which automated conversation partners are popular, featured by Facebook, or relevant to things nearby.

Extensions seem to work a lot like Apple's iMessage Apps feature, which was introduced last year. Messenger users can input little bits of rich content into a chat with other users, making it easy to share things like songs and restaurant reservations.

On top of all the bot news, Facebook also announced a new "hand-over protocol" that makes it possible for different companies to handle different types of bot functionality. That way, companies using bots could work with one provider to offer automated support, while another provider could offer an interactive fiction experience.

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