Facebook has officially announced its upcoming answer to the personal digital assistants: Siri, Google Now and Cortana. It’s called Facebook M, and it sits right within the Facebook Messenger app.
Don’t go looking for it just yet. The first trial reportedly includes only a few hundred FB users in the San Francisco bay area.
What will it do?
So far, Facebook’s intentions for M sound lofty at best. Not only will it be able to handle the usual PDA things like notifications, reminders, noting appointments in your calendar; M will perform tasks undreamt of by its competition.
So far, the ability to find and automatically purchase online items for delivery; make restaurant reservations, find a birthday gift for your significant other; and even suggest and then book travel accommodation on your behalf.
M isn’t just a clever set of AI algorithms; it’s a complicated merging of the ‘traditional’ PDA with actual real-life people that Facebook is calling “M Trainers”. For simple tasks, like making a calendar event, the AI will handle things. Once things start to get complicated, or the risk gets higher (i.e. when spending your money is involved), an M Trainer will step in.
Ideally, you’ll never know whether you’re speaking to AI or an actual person; M will attempt to flawlessly handle just about any request you throw at it.
Sounds good so far
But does it? When was the last time you booked a hotel for your holiday? Think about the steps you took: search out the best locations, cull by price, compare the top contenders by their websites or pictures. Nothing quite what you wanted? Adjust either your price or location parameters and start again.
If you’re holidaying with a significant other you probably ran your final selection by them before finally booking. Choosing accommodation is a personal experience, so much so that a person is often unwilling to make an executive decision without running it by their spouse first, to ensure that they’re also on board.
How is an M Trainer going to handle this complex activity? Will the user simply specify a price and a location, after which you’re given a short list of results to choose between? That sounds like a lot of work (and thus a significant delay) from the M Trainer on the other end.
What about online purchases? Will Facebook default to the cheapest option and automatically grab something for you on request, or will it run you by a list of choices. Once again this second option would be best, but take more than a few seconds on behalf of the person on the other end.
“Less than a minute” might not sound like much time at first; Facebook has over one billion users daily. You do the math.
Limited locations, partnered businesses & websites
At best, the Facebook M rollout is likely to be very slow. As crinkles are ironed out in the tiny first test-run, more Trainers will need to be hired and trained to handle the ramp in user base. FB will doubtless attempt to develop partnerships with a huge number of websites and venues to use as its go-to places for certain products and locations. After all, if you’re referring a buyer and not taking a piece of the pie then you’re not trying hard enough in today’s market.
This will take time. From a hotel reservation perspective alone, each and every place in every supported country will need an acceptable number of partnering hotels in every price range in all holiday locations.
For purchasing online products FB will need to make sure that a huge range of stuff is available from day one. That might be easy enough in the US, where just about anything can be purchased through Amazon (assuming a partnership is possible), but in other countries such an everything-in-one website is more difficult to come by.
In these situations, multiple big partners will be required. This is an obstacle that can be overcome, but like everything else it will take time.