Recently, Facebook has threw a new ‘war statement’ into instant messaging battlefield by launching its personal assistant service for Messenger, M.
A few years ago, there were few differences between SMS and a series of modern chatting apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, Kik, Line, KakaoTalk and Facebook Messenger. As time goes by, each have slowly defined themselves differently, whether through simplicity, connections to businesses, media, stickers, games, location, and other features.
However, Facebook has brought the battle for chat with the official announcement of M, its new personal assistant built into Messenger. M can actually complete various tasks for you, like buying things, choosing gifts, making reservations, arranging travel, and many more.
What’s truly unique is what’s behind M. Specifically, a lot of live bodies. M isn’t just artificial intelligence. Facebook has contracted real people to help M answer people’s requests while teaching the technology how to handle them automatically in the future.
M is still in early beta testing, so it’s hard to assess just how well it accomplishes this grand ambition. Yet, if it really works, Facebook may have developed a product so useful yet so complex and resource-intensive that it could differentiate Facebook Messenger in a way its competitors can’t or won’t follow.
There are digital assistants like Google Now and Siri. But those are so mechanised that they can only provide rote answers and reminders. There are personal assistants like Magic and Operator that use humans to answer complex requests, but they’re independent apps without massive scale. And there are messaging apps fighting to grow their already-huge audiences, but that still look similar despite their attempts to differentiate.
M combines the power of a world-leading artificial intelligence lab with the dexterity of humans Facebook can afford to hire and the scale of its 700 million user Messenger app. Unlike Google or Apple which boast for their advanced AI, Facebook used human helpers to brute force a full-featured assistant. The closest thing to M might be the third-party app WeSecretary built atop WeChat.
Making M work for all of Messenger’s users might be slow or expensive, but it’ll probably be both.
Eventually, M would ideally work with minimal human assistance. To get there, Facebook needs time for its M contractors to teach it the best way to solve problems. With a small workforce and small beta, that could take a while. Growing M’s test base and the legions of helpers behind it will cost a ton.
However, that’s why Facebook is so distinctly well-equipped. It has money. Not quite Google or Apple money, but with $4 billion in revenue and around $700 million in profit last quarter, Facebook has resources to throw at M. It also has time. Facebook’s ownership of both Messenger and the 800 million-user WhatsApp gives it a decisive lead in messaging. It doesn’t have to worry about falling further behind while it concentrates on R&D.
Finally, with both Messenger and WhatsApp in its possession, Facebook has arguably the best ways to leverage a chat-based personal assistant.
How will Facebook get profit from this massive investment? There are plenty of ways M could make money.
For example, Facebook could establish relationships with certain product or service vendors, earning a cut for making them M’s go-to provider for certain requests. It might similar to how Shyp earns money on the difference between the bulk shipping discounts it gets and what it charges users, Facebook could surely find some margin to absorb it if it can power smooth personal assistant shopping and travel booking.
All Facebook has to do with M is make Messenger more useful, and thereby used more. The chat app locks people into Facebook’s social network, and that’s where it keeps the real money-maker: the ad-filled News Feed.