Facebook is trying to carve out some space for itself in the busy virtual personal assistant market, where it will take on Apple, Google and Microsoft, as part of what could be the next evolution of search. The company is taking a different tack with Facebook M, its voice assistant, however, because M's responses to queries will be powered by a mix of artificial intelligence (AI) and real human interaction. Facebook M can also help users buy items from retailers, get recommendations for activities, and make reservations for dining, travel and more.
M, which is a part of Facebook's Messenger app, is available to only a "very, very small number of people" in the San Francisco Bay Area right now, but the company says versions for iOS and Android will be publicly released during the coming months.
"This is early in the journey to build M into an at-scale service," said David Marcus, Facebook's vice president and head of messaging products, in a Facebook post. "But it's an exciting step towards enabling people on Messenger to get things done across a variety of things, so they can get more time to focus on what's important in their lives.
(CIO.com reached out to Facebook for details on M but has not yet received a response.)
How Facebook M differs from Siri, Google Now and Cortana
Facebook M won't incorporate much of the mountains of user data Facebook collects, at least not initially, and the service will likely face adoption challenges because of the additional steps you must take to initiate search queries and tasks. Apple's Siri, Google Now and Microsoft Cortana have user interface advantages, because they are built in at the mobile OS level, and they're just one tap or button push away, according to Brian Blau, research director at Gartner.
"I think what's happening is that people are being conditioned to think about it as search today, and that's going to be sort of the gateway," he says. "All the services are going to be moving to the model that Facebook has, meaning they're going to be action oriented."
Virtual assistants like M are going to be more personal and have deeper meaning for individual users because of the running conversations that will occur in lieu of more basic question-and-answer sessions, Blau says.
"M seems to differentiate on the basis of allowing you to get things done, even real-life things that require human intervention, whereas Siri majors on smartphone functions, and Google Now is as much about presenting you with information proactively as allowing you to take action on that information," says Jan Dawson, chief analyst and founder of tech research firm Jackdaw.
Only a matter of time before ads hit M
Although Facebook says M won't currently use the targeted user data it owns on its roughly 1.5 billion users, the situation could very well change over time if the company reaches a point where it can't handle all of the activity that's managed by its staff today. Messenger already operates somewhat separately from Facebook and its user data, because it does not make users have Facebook accounts.
"It's a bit vague exactly how much of Facebook's M is going to be human versus computer-driven, and I suspect that the goal is to get to largely machine-driven eventually, but be heavily reliant on human beings upfront," Dawson says.
"The challenge with gaining credibility as a virtual assistant, of course, is recommending truly the best option rather than the highest bidder, and that's particularly a problem with businesses that make most of their money from advertising," he says. "Facebook's going to have to be very careful not to cross that line if it's to be successful here."
Advertising drove 94 percent of Facebook's $4.04 billion in revenue during the second quarter of 2015, and it's a safe bet that Facebook's motivation for entering the virtual assistant space is to eventually provide advertising. Blau suggests that virtual personal assistants like M won't be able to operate in the future without businesses backing them up and working in cohorts behind the scenes.
"There is a platform play here that we haven't really seen yet," Blau says. "[T]here will be a platform war, so to speak, coming about getting these businesses to sign up for them and to offer connections into these virtual personal assistants that will help them become more robust."
By downplaying the eventual connections that could occur between M, advertising and Facebook's vast mountain of user data, the company walks a fine line between utility and privacy, Blau says. "To me it's a pattern. 'This is Facebook, but it's not really Facebook, so don't worry about [advertising] right now. Trust us.' I'm sure this piece of it was carefully designed to not increase the distrust any more than they have to."