Why Microsoft just made a big bet on bots – The Verge
Satya Nadella’s tenure as Microsoft’s CEO has been marked by the knowledge that the company has to find a future beyond Windows. “Our industry does not respect tradition,” Nadella said when he was appointed. “It only respects innovation.” Since then, Nadella reorganized the company to focus on areas where the company is still growing. Today he announced the emerging platform where he hopes to realize many of Microsoft’s ambitions: conversation as a platform, otherwise known as bots.
As we reported in January, the tech industry has begun to embrace bots with a fervor unseen since the early days of the App Store. Messaging apps have emerged as the most popular apps on smartphones, and advancements in natural language processing have made it possible to build artificial intelligences that more easily respond to our requests and perform actions in the real world. With the web and the US market for apps seemingly have peaked, have left tech companies hungry for new ways to reach customers.
“We think this can have as profound an impact as the previous platform shifts have had.”
Nowhere is that hunger felt more acutely than at Microsoft, which squandered billions of dollars in a failed effort to build a mobile device platform. And that helps to explain Nadella’s lofty language around bots. He compared the shift in focus from mobile apps to bots in the same language people use today to describe the shift from desktop PCs to the mobile era. “[It’s] a simple concept that’s very powerful in its impact,” he said at today’s Build developer conference. “We think this can have as profound an impact as the previous platform shifts have had.”
Certainly Microsoft hopes it will. The company now comprises three divisions. There’s Windows and devices, which houses Microsoft’s slow-growing legacy products. There’s cloud and enterprise, which hosts the highly profitable Azure computing platform as well as various analytics and security products. And there’s applications and services, which is charged with “reinventing productivity.”
If bots indeed become the next major computing platform, they offer each of Microsoft’s divisions ways to win. The company will court developers to create their bots in Windows and run them on on Azure, where it is able to charge for a range of services. As Amazon Web Services was to the mobile era, the thinking goes, Microsoft could be to bots. And on the consumer end, all those bots could help people be more productive.
That’s why Nadella spoke today of a world where digital assistants like Cortana could communicate with bots on their own, performing increasingly sophisticated tasks with little oversight by their human masters. If that should come to pass, it will matter less that Apple and Google made Microsoft’s efforts with Windows Phone appear all but irrelevant. Windows- and Azure-powered bots will instead show up in all the most popular messaging apps on those platforms, colonizing them from the inside out.
Microsoft won’t have the future all to itself
But Microsoft won’t have the future all to itself. A host of startups have emerged seeking to do what Microsoft announced today. There’s Chatfuel, which has the backing of Russian search giant Yandex and famed Silicon Valley incubator Y Combinator. Its chatbots are good enough that Google tried unsuccessfully to buy it last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Another Y Combinator company, Msg.ai, and a San Francisco startup named Assist are also developing ways to connect businesses to customers using bots. Meanwhile Slack, the fast-growing team communication tool, launched an $80 million fund in December aimed at developers who want to build bots and other utilities for the service.
Shane Mac, co-founder of Assist, told me Microsoft’s entry into bots was to be expected. “It’s no surprise that they’re gonna play in it — the space is so massive that obviously they’re gonna be here,” he said. Mac said that he expected big tech companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon would all build powerful artificial intelligence tools that other companies can tap into to power their bots. “That’s the website builder of the future,” Mac said. “If Microsoft owns that and every business in the world uses them to build their messaging infrastructure, that’s massive.”
And the more bots that Microsoft powers, Mac said, the more powerful a search engine it can build to help users find them. In a world increasingly run by artificial intelligence, the dominant search engine for bots could be massively profitable, he said.
It’s a bright vision of the future, and if it pans out, Nadella will look like one of the cleverest leaders in recent business history. But it’s worth remembering that so far, consumer interest in bots hasn’t exactly been overwhelming. My anecdotal sense from talking to users of Facebook M, a digital assistant powered by a mix of humans and AI, is that they aren’t using it all that often. (I don’t.) A user interface that is nothing more than a blank text box can be challenging to navigate. Of course Silicon Valley, which grew up using the command line, finds it irresistible. Will the rest of the world?
A challenging user interface
At the same time, most people haven’t even used a bot yet. That could begin to change April 12th, when Facebook is expected to open Facebook Messenger to third-party bots created by developers. Overnight, more than 800 million people could have access to bots that perform an ever-increasing number of tasks. It remains to be seen how Microsoft’s plans fit into Facebook’s; the two have often been business partners.
Microsoft deserves some credit today for betting on a future that looks increasingly likely to arrive. But anticipating the future has never really been the company’s problem: it developed smartphones and tablets long before Apple, after all. The money, as always, will be in the execution. And nobody has built a killer bot just yet.