While the world starts to get to know its new virtual assistant, there's at least one thing app developers can be pretty sure Facebook M won't do: help them to create a more engaging mobile experience.
Launched with surprising suddenness and apparently taking much of the app sector unaware, Facebook M simply appeared inside the social media company's Messenger app, according to several reports, where it offers to help consumers with a variety of tasks. Immediately positioned as the social media company's answer to Siri and Google Now, Wired magazine noted that it also shows a growing trend in the evolution of apps:
"Companies from Google to Taskrabbit are engineering products to act as superpowered personal assistants. Some, like Apple's Siri, Google Now, or Microsoft's Cortana, rely entirely on technology, and though they can be used by a lot of people, their range of tasks remains limited. Others, like startups Magic and Operator or gig-economy companies like TaskRabbit, employ people to respond to text-based requests. These services can get nearly anything done -- for a much smaller number of folks. M is a hybrid. It's a virtual assistant powered by artificial intelligence as well as a band of Facebook employees, dubbed M trainers, who will make sure that every request is answered."
It's easy enough to see why Facebook would create Facebook M, just as it's easy to imagine that it will be some time, if ever, that the company allows third-party apps to make use of it. While Google Now's open API made it debut earlier this year and rumors abound that Apple will eventually do the same with Siri, the complex functionality (and high expectations) of such tools tend to make companies leery about letting the developer community do anything that could compromise them. (Yes, Microsoft moved more quickly with Cortana as a way to generate developer mindshare for universal apps, but that's an exception and still unproven as a business strategy.)
While they wait and wonder if they'll ever be able to get their hooks in Facebook M, I'd suggest developers use it as a case study to figure out how best they could create a similarly one-on-one relationship with their own users. It's probably far outside the scope for the average indie developers to create a Siri, Google Now or Facebook M, but anything would be better than the basic "[email protected]" email address too many apps have as a feedback mechanism.
In fact, I'd suggest Facebook's approach of combining automation with human responses is a great way to think about how best to serve app customers in the future. Developers will not be able to do it all, but neither should they leave it all up to technology which may be forever imperfect. Facebook M may not turn out to be the developer community's best friend, but it may still become a friend from which they can learn a lot. --Shane