Apple has Siri, Google has its Assistant, and Amazon has Alexa, but Facebook isn’t looking to join this illustrious group with its own voice assistant any time soon. “We are not working on that actively right now,” said David Marcus, the company’s VP of messaging products, in an interview with Variety at Facebook’s F8 developer conference this week.
Facebook does have its own text-based assistant, dubbed M, which is part of Messenger, and the company has been offering publishers tools to develop their own bots to automate text-based assistance through Messenger as well. But it has thus far stayed away from developing an Alexa-like voice assistant because it found that voice only works in certain contexts.
People feel comfortable speaking with an Amazon Echo-type speaker in their kitchen and they may also like using voice input when they’re alone in their car, but in most instances, voice input simply doesn’t work on mobile, Marcus argued. This is why Facebook is sticking to text, a form of input that Messenger users are already comfortable with.
Facebook first rolled out what the company calls its Messenger platform one year ago, allowing businesses to build their own bots that automate responses to certain customer service queries. Marcus admitted this week that the company had some issues early on, with bots that tried to emulate human conversation too closely appearing very artificial to their users, and not all that intelligent. “If the interface is entirely conversational and open-ended and broad, it’s going to go poorly,” he said.
That’s why Facebook is now looking to increasingly make automated assistance part of human conversations. Instead of talking to a business or brand directly, which can feel awkward, Messenger users can now query services like Spotify, the NBA, or OpenTable while talking to their friends. This allows them to search for and share songs, plan a dinner reservation together, or search for a NBA game highlight, and then watch it together during their chat.
Facebook also announced this week that it is giving QR codes another try as a way to unlock such experiences in Messenger. QR codes have been very successful in Asia, but users in Western countries have largely ignored them thus far. Facebook wants to change that by making them more useful: Businesses will be able to generate multiple codes to place around their venues or on their products to trigger specific responses within the app. Marcus admitted freely that Western users may ignore the format regardless. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen.”
Voice assistance may also happen for Facebook eventually, even if the company isn’t building its own version of Alexa right now. Marcus said that some third-party developers have already started to take advantage of Messenger’s ability to send voice snippets as input for their bots. In fact, that’s how Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg controls Jarvis, the computer butler he developed as a custom solution for his smart home.
Eventually, Facebook may embrace something like this officially, perhaps with a different device. “We will explore that over time,” Marcus said.