How Facebook Will Make the Smartphone Smart Again

By Darren Orf on at

You probably only use three apps on your smartphone—and one of them is likely a messaging app. By some estimates, messengers are even more popular than social media. And now, Facebook is giving you even more reasons to send text messages.

Today at its annual developer conference, Facebook announced its adding chatbots—short for chat robots—to its Messenger app. The new bots are essentially software, with varying degrees of complexity, that are capable of simulating human conversation. The bots could book a hotel, order a meal, find a restaurant, hail a taxi, and do much more through text chatting.

Facebook hopes the bots will fundamentally change the way you use your smartphone. Instead of opening up several different standalone apps for one small command, you’ll be able run those operations all through Facebook Messenger.

Imagine booking a flight by simply texting an airline (some are already preparing for that future) or finding the right restaurant by having a conversation with a Yelp bot. You’ll no longer need to download an app that just sits on your phone and wastes resources. Instead, you can just open Messenger.

Bots could also be a big deal for local business, many of which don’t have the resources to build standalone apps. Chatbots could help those business have a stronger online presence.

Facebook isn’t the first company to adopt chat robots. Companies like Line and Kik and even Microsoft have announced new bot platforms in just the last two weeks. Other popular apps, like WeChat, have been using chatbots for years—and they’re really popular because of it.

Chatbot developer Ben Brown, who built a tool for creating bots called Botkit, thinks we’re at the beginning of a big shift in North America and Facebook’s announcement will have a huge impact.

“There weren’t even close to a billion iPhones when the App Store opened,” said Brown in an interview with Gizmodo, referring to Messenger’s nearly 1 billion users. “Messenger has access to the Facebook Knowledge graph, too. So it not only comes with a billion users, but a lot of context, a lot of history, and that will make the software better.”

Brown uses the example of air travel—the headache we’re all familiar with—to explain how bots could change the way we interact with technology and businesses.

“You’ll still order a plane ticket and get it texted to you like you always have. Only this time, [the bot] will ask, ‘Do you need anything else?’

You can reply ‘when do I land?’ and it will answer. It will be this seamless interaction. The information gets to people when they need it, where they need it, and you never have to leave Facebook Messenger. It just goes away when it’s done and comes back when they need it again.”

Now imagine that scenario but with shopping, banking, customer service, ordering food, exchanging money—you get the idea. You can start to see what has bot developers so excited, like Dan Reich, who builds chatbots for businesses.

“I think chatbots are the next big evolution in online technology,” said Reich in an interview with Gizmodo.“Bots are simply the new interface for computing. They will be easy to use and very approachable.”

Of course, chatbots won’t be able to replace all apps. For example, a chatbot won’t make browsing Instagram any easier and replace your email app, either. The App Store on your iPhone will likely never transform into the “Bot Store,” but the two will peacefully coexist instead.

Brown sees chatbots as useful tools for the next generation of mobile computing, ones that are easier to create than apps and can also be much more useful. “The fact you’ll soon be able to summon apps and ‘boom’ they’re inside Facebook Messenger—we’ve never had that before,” he said. “It’s crazy in a way I haven’t seen in for a long time. It’s the perfect mix of opportunity and technology.”