Key takeaways

  • Bots – apps that automate repetitive tasks – have reached a new level of sophistication.
  • Software juggernauts are backing bots as the next technology platform.
  • Will bots compete with mobile apps?

Microsoft held its annual Build Conference in San Francisco last week, a two-day event focusing on software development in support of the company’s products. While the conference primarily focused on a range of technologies and initiatives for third-party programmers, several surprising and notable announcements were made by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

In his keynote presentation, Nadella outlined Microsoft’s forthcoming investment in bot technology – an ambitious new direction that, if fully implemented, stands to affect most of the software giant’s core suite of products.

By staking a significant portion of its future prospects on bots, Microsoft is laying the groundwork for a new phase of software innovation. But what are bots, exactly, and how will they affect Microsoft’s current suite of software products? What will the technology do for other businesses and industries? And why is Facebook so interested in them too?

All about
bots

‘Bots’ are software applications that automate specific tasks and processes on behalf of the author or user. They came into prominence in the mid-1990s, where they operated under series of other names and pseudonyms, including ‘web robots’, ‘knowbots’, ‘softbots’, ‘taskbots’ and ‘autonomous agents’.

Since their inception, bots have been used commercially by internet companies to perform repetitive web tasks on a large and cost-efficient scale. Google’s main web crawler, for example, which scours and indexes the entire internet, is known as ‘Googlebot’.

Alongside this legitimate use-case, bots have also suffered a bad reputation due to their potential deployment for malicious purposes online. A more nefarious use includes coding a ‘spambot’, which crawls websites to gather email addresses for unwanted solicitations.

While bots are far from a new technology, recent advances in natural language programming and artificial intelligence (AI) have cleared the decks for a new renaissance in positive bot deployment.

By integrating a bot layer atop a pre-existing platform or software service – especially one augmented with natural language recognition technology – an almost endless array of complex functions are made possible using simple inputs, from filing expense reports to ordering your favourite pizza.

“Get me to Sydney before
tomorrow’s big meeting”

Re-enter Microsoft. At Build, the company announced third-party bot integration into its popular video calling service Skype, as well as its Windows 10 AI assistant Cortana.

Also unveiled was the Microsoft Bot Framework, which allows the opportunity for third-party developers to integrate their bots into other Microsoft programs such as the Bing search engine or the flagship Office 365 software suite.

In opening up Windows 10, Skype, Bing and Office 365, the company is leaving virtually no stone unturned when it comes to bot integration across its product portfolio.

Will bots
replace apps?

By opening up its entire range of core products to bot integration, Microsoft is betting big on the technology’s future. Reading between the lines, the company is attempting to evolve each of its products into a distinct platform with a thriving ecosystem of third-party software, much like the core product that made it famous: Windows.

And when these technologies are eventually deployed in the smartphone space, a key question will inevitably arise: will bots complement – or compete with – the established and mature app ecosystems of Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS?

Other tech giants
get on board

Microsoft is not the only tech company to be aligning behind bots. In January this year, TechCrunch reported that Facebook had opened up its Messenger app to select developers to allow them to “build interactive experiences and ‘bots’ in Messenger for shopping, booking travel, and more.”

In preparation for this forthcoming evolution of Messenger, Facebook has spent the past year preparing the app’s transition into an open platform. In March 2015, Facebook opened the software to third-party developers at its F8 Developer Conference. Several months later in August, the company began piloting a virtual AI assistant named Facebook M.

Ultimately, these initiatives are all a part of Facebook’s broader strategy of monetising both Messenger and the recently-acquired messaging app WhatsApp. At the company’s Q2 2015 quarterly earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained the rationale behind the strategy: improving the value proposition for users by “enabling people to have good organic interactions with businesses.”

What does this mean
for business?

For other businesses, having two of the world’s largest tech companies open their consumer products – each of which boasts user bases numbering in hundreds of millions – to bot technology presents a huge opportunity, akin to Apple opening up the iPhone 3g to third-party developers in 2008.

Retail businesses, for example, will be able to integrate their own bot into the various platforms, allowing the user to purchase products or services through simple inputs via their video calling, peer-to-peer messaging, or virtual assistant software of choice.

Professional services companies, meanwhile, could take advantage of the bot layer in productivity applications such as Microsoft Office or the Bing search engine, allowing a user to engage, both directly and contextually, with the firm through one of these software suites.

Are bots the next
big thing?

Bots are the latest iteration of an ongoing digital transformation using automated processes, presenting huge opportunities to businesses and users alike. Looking to the future, the onus is on software vendors to successfully integrate the technology with their products, transitioning them from services to open platforms and ecosystems, as well as enticing developer support and user engagement.