Comparing Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google chatbots to get a read of where the industry is heading
27 September 2018

Comparing Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google chatbots to get a read of where the industry is heading

Amazon’s AI philosophy is to make it easier for non-machine-learning experts to apply AI to solve business problems quickly and affordably.

Siri and Alexa have now become household names in North America, Xiaoice has become a digital friend to million Chinese, and the term “chatbot” has been an overused buzzword for more than two years.

I'll take ca closer look at the chatbot roadmaps of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon to explore following questions: 

  • What are the potential business implications of conversational interfaces or “chatbots”?
  • What are the biggest announcements and initiatives of the “big 4” for conversational interfaces?
  • What does the state of the chatbot world today mean for business leaders across industries?
  • Why are these companies betting on this emerging technology?

Why Have Chatbots Become So Popular?

Companies are investing in chatbots because the technology is starting to become usable to solve real-world business problems. The technology is evolving fast but using chatbots or digital assistants can still be frustrating. Chatbots often stumble over anything beyond the most basic requests that they were designed to automate.

Despite the limitations of chatbots and virtual assistants, enterprises are beginning to apply chatbots to solve business problems because the technological limitations are rapidly being overcome. The technology also promises to eliminate jobs, automate repetitive tasks, and is seen as a way to save money and raise corporate profits.

Data Has Become Critical

To build a truly human-like conversational experience, the AI algorithms powering a chatbot must process a massive amount of data and archived interactions.

Tech leaders are realizing they are gathering and sitting on a trove of data that's integral to solving the kind of business problems chatbots and virtual assistants are designed to address. 

Every application powered by an AI conversational interface, such as Facebook Messenger bots, Xiaoice, Alexa, Siri, Cortana generate even more data that helps chatbots and virtual assistants become even smarter. There is accelerating data feedback loop:

  1. The more data we have;
  2. The smarter our AI neural networks become;
  3. The better the user experience.

For example, Microsoft designed Cortana to become smarter after each use, learning what the user wants, and getting better at abstracting the user's intent.

Messaging Apps Have Now Achieve Significant Adoption

Messaging has become a major way people interact with their smartphones, so companies want chatbots to be a part of the conservation.

According to Business Intelligence (BI) research:

  • The number of monthly active users on messaging platforms rapidly surpassed the number of active social network users.
  • In 2107, "WhatsApp" reached the one billion active user mark.
  • One in seven people on the planet now actively use the Facebook messaging platform.

Facebook’s Chinese competitor:

  • Claims to have 768 million daily logged in users as of September 2016.
  • Half of WeChat’s users are actively interacting on their network for over 90 minutes a day.
  • The number of WeChat messages sent increased by 67% from 2015 to 2016.

Enterprises are Now Seriously Considering Chatbot

Oracle recently surveyed major companies around the world and found that 80 percent plan to use chatbots for customer interactions by 2020 and 36 percent have already started implementing them.

For example if you are talking with your friends about travel plans or going to a movie, a chatbot can directly enter the conversation and provide value-added automated services.

(1) Facebook Chatbots

Facebook has their own Messenger platform and also owns the popular messaging platform called WhatsApp.

Facebook currently has 1.2 billion people using Facebook Messenger and over 100,000 monthly active bots. Facebook is the dominant player in messaging services and consistently invests in communication bots.

Their mission is to make it easy for companies to use Facebook bot technology to contact customers within their Facebook messaging services.

The goal of Facebook's user experience evolution is to move away from having to use different apps and transition the experience into a natural conversation with a machine. For example, users could order an Uber directly from Facebook Messenger simply through a chatbot conversation.

Facebook opened up its Messenger service to developers and launched their "Bot Store" in early 2016 and has been constantly updating the platform. Recently Facebook added the ability for multiple users to communicate with a bot within a single conversation. For example, a group of friends could be discussing evening plans and seamlessly order movie tickets using a chatbot.

The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has enthusiastically pursued the chatbot market, putting Facebook in the strongest position to become the ubiquitous chat interface for everyday consumers.

Facebook’s 1 billion daily users will be subtly distracted from “likes” and “posts” to shopping and booking flights using chatbots. 

Facebook’s future will be “M”, their AI-powered virtual assistant. A small number of beta testers have access to “M”, which is being augmented using humans. When a question is too difficult for the AI chatbot, a human completes the request, while “M” learns.  Once the AI system has learned to handle a request sufficiently well, it is rolled out across the Facebook network.

Facebook “M” can scan your conversations for hints that you owe someone money or are planning to go somewhere. “M” then suggest ways to transfer money or hail a rideshare service from within the active conversation.

Facebook Messenger also supports chat extension that allow users to contextually bring bots into their conversation. For example, chatbots are now being used to split bills, share music, and order food; directly within their conversations. 

(2) Microsoft Chatbots 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes chat-based interfaces will replace apps as the primary way people use the Internet. Microsoft is investing in chat as the wave of the future.

Nadella stating last year, “Bots are like new applications, and digital assistants are meta apps or like the new browsers. And intelligence is infused into all of your interactions. That’s the rich platform that we have.”

Nadella also mentioned that “conversation-as-a-platform" will “fundamentally revolutionize how computing is experienced by everybody,” in a paradigm shift comparable to the development of the web browser.

Microsoft sees their Conversation as a Platform strategy as an opportunity to regain a competitive edge. The current user experience of opening an app and being required to enter information in a very specific way will be a thing of the past. Instead, users will interact with apps using basic conversational language, while the AI-powered software making the magic happen seamlessly

Microsoft may be able to leverage their broad enterprise adoption to become the “bot platform” company to beat. 

Microsoft prides itself on having released the first "true platform" for text-based chat interfaces and has an early start on building bots that resonate with people on an emotional level. 

Microsoft introduced the chatbot Xiaoice in China in 2014 and the chatbot Rinna in Japan in 2015. Millions of people use these chatbots for emotional support. For example, twenty-five percent of Xiaoice users have told the chatbot, “I love you.” 

Microsoft has integrated Cortana, their AI assistant, into most of their products. Microsoft launched their "Bot Framework" in early 2016 — a set of tools that help developers produce their own chatbots. Over 130,000 developers have registered to build conversational interfaces using the Microsoft Bot Framework.

One such bot is UniBot. UniBot allows university students to manage their courses and pay their fees. The bot is targeted at non-English speaking students that often struggle to navigate university websites in American. The UniBot in available in 60 different languages.

(3) Amazon Chatbots

Following Microsoft and Facebook’s lead, Amazon released their conservation interface tool called Amazon Lex. Amazon delivers to developers the same technology that powers Amazon Alexa, their digital assistants.

Lex gives developers the ability to create conversational interfaces for chat services, internet of things devices, and communication service.

Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO) hi lighted in his 2017 shareholder letter that Amazon is lazer-focused on bringing AI to companies through their Lex servic. He told investors to “Watch this space. There is much more to come.” 

Amazon has a slightly different strategy that plays on their unique strengths.

As you would expect, Amazon is putting a lot of attention on delivering personal assistants for shopping. It is interesting to note that Amazon doesn’t seem to have a strong desire to tackle Facebook head-on by building an equivalent of Facebook “M”.

Amazon recently launched an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Chatbot Challenge in 2017, however it’s interesting to note that this challenge (which offers winners a total prize pool of $10,000) isn’t focused entirely on eCommerce, as you might expect.

Amazon has bet on their Echo smart speaker device, enhanced their Alexa voice interface, and completely avoided chat interfaces.

Their strategy assumes people will be avoiding typing and move towards more natural conventional interfaces.

Facebook is tied to their legacy Facebook Messenger interface which traps them, somewhat, into an old communication strategy that’s fast becoming obsolete.

With over 10 million Amazon Echo devices sold, we can’t blame Amazon for focusing their attention Onan area where their innovation return investment is the highest. 

Amazon is less interested in “toy” applications. They are looking for technologies that will allow them to continue to dominate retail commerce for the long term.

Amazon seems to have realized that chatbots technology isn’t capable enough today to become a major focus for Amazon in the near-term. 

(4) Google Chatbots

Google has been much slower to enter the chatbot space. They launched their smart instant messaging app called “Google Allo”, in late 2016.

Allo integrates Google Assistant, which evolved from Google Now. Allo allows people to chat directly with Google Assistant and have “basic” questions answered. They have a finite space they work within, similar to Google Now, which is a smart strategy because it’s easier to do a few things really well than to do a broad range of things in a less than impressive way. This approach amps up the user experience for the few things Google Allo is masterful at performing.

Google Assistant can suggest restaurants or movies through a natural conversation with Google Allo.

Google is working to improve its positioning in the chatbot space and recently launched “Chatbase”, Google’s analytic tool that helps companies improve their chatbots. While Chatbase will assist companies to improve their chatbots, it has the additional benefit of helping Google amass even more information about everyone online.

In the home-based conversational device world, they launched Google Assistant (competition directly with Amazon Lex). Developers build on top of Google’s existing NLP infrastructure to deliver conversational interface using Google Assistant. Google is currently significantly lagging behind Amazon’s 10 million Echo sales and has a long way to go.

Google's large user-base on Gmail, G Suite, Google Calendar can be leveraged to transition the user experience from web/app-based interactions to conversational interfaces.

For example, Google “Smart Reply” allows Gmail users to automate all or part of their email replies by analyzing their past responses to particular senders. Companies like X.ai have made a name for themselves by handling a small piece of the automated “appointment booking” workflow. Google is working hard to automate the monotonous aspects of our daily communication.

Microsoft is Google's only main competitor in the communication automation arena. Microsoft can build upon their massive Outlook and Office installed customer-base and vast enterprise footprint. 

Stay tuned for a battle between Microsoft and Google on the communication automation front. 

Summary

Here are the most widely accepted chatbot trends across the four Tech Giants covered earlier:

  • Over a billion people are using messaging services and the number continues to grow.
  • Messaging services have becoming one of the primary ways people spend their time on their smart devices.
  • Tech companies are integrating chatbots into their messaging and communications services to help consumer interact with basic services and request information using natural conversational interfaces.
  • As more people adopt chatbots and digital (AI) personal assistants, more data will be available, and the neural networks that power these new AI-driven interfaces will become smarter.
  • At the moment, the capabilities of most chatbots is fairly limited. Chatbot technology is capable of doing some basic tasks, is easily confused, and has a finite set of programmed capabilities.

These trends are being carefully monitored by the Tech Giants and are more speculative at this time:

  • Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook are betting that when AI chatbots and personal assistants become smart enough, mass adoption will suddenly happen.
  • Today smartphone users access dozens of apps to make dozens of different actions, this will significantly change over the next five years.
  • The Tech Giants envision conversational and natural interactions with machines that completely replace the fragmented ecosystem of apps we use today.
  • There is no widely accepted timeframe for when this technology will reach the adoption tipping point.
  • The major tech companies are investing in this technology and are betting that over time, chatbots and digital assistants will grow into something dramatically more intelligent and useful.
  • Microsoft recently asked their business customers about their progress implementing chatbots— the universal answer was “we don’t know where to start”.
  • To date, no Tech Giant has found the killer use case that will spark mass adoption.