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Facebook's chatbots pave way for centralized mobile platform

Facebook's chatbots aim to change the mobile experience. What are the implications for IT execs? Also in Searchlight: Microsoft sues feds over consumer rights; Box expands global reach.

Facebook never wants you (or your customers) to leave its apps.

This week the social-networking giant opened its Messenger app to developers to create "chatbots," robots powered by artificial intelligence and designed to help consumers communicate with businesses, make purchases, access information and perform other tasks -- everything from booking a flight to making a reservation.

"No one wants to have to install a new app for every business or service they want to interact with," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the company's annual F8 conference in San Francisco. "We think you should be able to just message a business in the same way you message a friend."

Thinking of businesses as our friends may be a stretch, but enterprise mobility experts I talked to said chatbots like the ones enabled on Facebook's Messenger app could very well alter -- dare I say seriously disrupt? -- how organizations think about their consumer-facing mobile applications and customer interaction.

Jonathan Reichental, CIO for the City of Palo Alto, Calif., has little doubt that Facebook is thinking big with its chatbot move. If Facebook can persuade its huge user population to use its platform not only for all manner of social interactions but also for business interactions, it will become a very different company.

"This basically makes Facebook the world's biggest e-commerce platform," he said. "Every business that sells anything can now sell through Facebook."

Mobile apps, centralized

Michael Facemire, a principal analyst at Forrester Research who specializes in app development and delivery, said Facebook's move to centralize mobile communications is smart. His research shows that while consumers have lots of apps, they end up spending 84% of their time in only five apps each month.

"People don't want to download more apps. … Most people feel like they have too many apps, and they take up too much space," he said -- a pain point that a centralized platform like Messenger is promising to ease.

The winners are going to be those that have APIs that are exposed and are friendly to these types of bots.
Paul Heckeldirector of digital strategy, Solstice Mobile

The potential ease and efficiency gains are not just on the consumer side. If consumers make the shift to Messenger for business communications and transactions, Facemire predicts enterprises will follow suit. It's a chase for companies to follow their customers, he said. With 900 million monthly users and over 50 million businesses already on the app, Messenger is a field companies will want to graze in.

"If [organizations] can meet [customers'] needs without an additional app and by using one that customers already have -- and if the customer experience is equal, if not a little bit better -- then they'll absolutely use a more centralized platform," Facemire added.

"The business has to go where the marketplace goes, which goes where the big folks -- like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce and Amazon -- take us," Reichental said. "They wield a lot of power."

But along with the benefits a new channel like Facebook's chatbots may offer comes the challenge of supporting it. "It's just another area that your business needs to be concerned about," Reichental said.

Facemire agreed. "From an enterprise perspective … it's simply another proof point that the front ends that you'll be needing to consider are growing," he said. "New opportunities are coming all the time, so we can no longer think of these as individual, discrete channels. Instead, companies have to start thinking of this as, 'How do I serve my customer?' 'Where are they?' and 'How can I make sure that I am there when they need me?'"

IT architectures need to adapt

That shift in thinking will require CIOs and their IT teams to experiment and adapt. Chatbots will force IT organizations to rethink how they build applications and how these applications perform and scale, Facemire said.

"In the past we … always knew what our application would look like -- always knew what the presentation would look like on the Web or on a desktop application -- but now there are so many new front ends we don't know," he said.

"So now it is incredibly important that we build applications with good architecture in mind and with a good engineering ethos," Facemire continued. "Make sure your data is accessible from anywhere, any device, any channel -- and has value. Let's not build these really complex Web services that work well for the Web but are overkill for mobile and completely unusable in a chat-type interface."

Figuring out how to adapt to these new channels won't be easy -- or obvious. For example, Reichental questioned the feasibility of navigating a massive catalogue like Amazon in the context of a chatbot and compared it to software development efforts for another tricky app space.

"With the smart watches, your visual interface is tiny and so you can't put a website on a watch -- you've got to rethink your business model. And I think the same thing will occur in the bots world," he said.

The customer comes first

"The winners are going to be those that have APIs that are exposed and are friendly to these types of bots," said Paul Heckel, director of digital strategy at mobile consulting firm Solstice Mobile. His advice to CIOs: Don't dismiss chatbots as just another trend; embrace them as a potentially valuable customer channel.

Facemire reiterates to CIOs that they shouldn't have a "bot strategy" so much as a "customer-led strategy" that understands where customers are going to be and how bots can play there. Ultimately, it's about finding and latching on to whatever business value can come from bots.

"As was the case with mobile … we're not buying or building technology simply for technology needs; we're building it because we have business needs, so understand how a given technology meets a business requirement," he said.

CIO news roundup for week of April. 11

Chatbots may have been the big story, but here is other tech news that made headlines this week:

  • The latest installment of the technology industry versus the federal government: Microsoft has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government over court orders forcing the company to turn over email messages -- without notifying the customer involved. Microsoft argues that it's unconstitutional. The suit focuses on the government's attempts to access data on remote cloud servers. "People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud," the lawsuit reads.
  • Box is hoping to attract more global businesses to its cloud services by partnering with Amazon and IBM to offer a new storage solution called Box Zones. It allows companies to store data more locally through data centers in Ireland, Germany, Japan and Singapore. Organizations have become increasingly hesitant to store their data in the U.S. after the Edward Snowden intelligence leaks in 2013, reports Business Insider.
  • What can blockchain do for us? That's what Airbnb hopes to figure out with its recent "acqui-hiring" of a team of bitcoin and blockchain experts from ChangeCoin, a startup that runs a bitcoin-based micropayments service. Trust is the name of the game with Airbnb, so the immutability of blockchain distributed-database technology seems well suited for the company's needs.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on Microsoft's investment in blockchain and biometric surveillance concerns.

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