In an “its about time” story, Google is apparently eyeing a major upgrade of its not-so-popular messaging services.
According to sources familiar with the project, Google has decided to bring its artificial intelligence expertise to improve the user experience with its Messenger app and Hangouts service. The tech titan will use new AI chatbots to answer user questions. Chatbots can be described as a smart search engine: users enter a question, and the program searches the web to find an answer. The best part about chatbots is their convenience, as users don’t have to start up a new program or a open new browser outside of their conversations.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment on this story.
Analysts point out that messaging services have become one of the most popular mobile apps, with over two billion users worldwide, based on data from Portio Research. That said, Google’s messaging services are clearly the laggards among major players right now. Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger and Tencent Holdings WeChat, the most popular messaging app in China all have significantly more users that both of Google apps combined. Several of the chat services are starting to add on other features to their basic messaging platform. China-based WeChat, for example, also allows its users to shop, pay bills and make a variety of home and personal service appointments.
The new messenger service from Google will include AI chatbots, software programs that answer questions inside a messaging app, according to sources who spoke to the Wall Street Journal. When using the messaging service, users will be able to text friends or enter text into a chatbot, which will search the Web and other sources for information for an answer.
The key issue for Google is that users typically join messaging services due to relationships with already existing users, and so far the firm has had difficulty developing these network effects with both Hangouts and Messenger.
Keep in mind that consumers can already choose from dozens of smaller messaging services. Luka.ai is also developing a messaging service that can answers questions and perform a variety of tasks. The chat engine uses artificial-intelligence to find the answers to users questions. For example, when a user asks for a movie recommendation, the app responds based on prior movie searches or ticket purchases.
“We show you a steakhouse and you say, ‘No I’m vegetarian,’ and the system remembers and doesn’t recommend meat restaurants” next time, explains Zhenya Kuyda, the CEO of Luka.ai.
Operator was founded Uber co-founder Garrett Camp, and is also utilizing chatbots in its service. Slack Technologies, a start up focusing on workplace communication, provides intelligent chatbots to automate tasks such as translating. Facebook began rolling out M, a digital assistant that purchases items, books restaurants, travel and appointments through text, earlier this summer
Google messaging app revamp led by Nick Fox
Google VP of communications Nick Fox has been leading a team working on the new service for at least a year, according to the WSJ sources
Two of the sources highlight that Fox and Google / Alphabet tried to snap up 200 Labs Inc., a startup that is developing chatbots, but they would not sell out.
Of interest, 200 Labs is working to create a marketplace and rating service for chatbots on Telegram, a messaging app with scores of specialized chatbots on topics such as the weather, image search, news and dating. Apparently, 200 Labs is also developing its own technology to determine the ideal chatbot to respond to a specific request.
The sources pointed out that Google is now pursuing a similar goal with its messaging service, and has hired an in-house developer team for the project.
Users of Google’s search engine currently type their question or key terms into the browser search box, but with the new service, users will send questions as text messages that chatbots will respond to. One of the sources also noted that outside developers will be brought in to create chatbots for the service.
The new messaging service will work by Google directing users to specific chatbots similarly to how a search engine directs users to relevant websites. Analysts also emphasize that the decision by Google to move into chatbots is a long-term strategic move, as messaging apps and chatbots are arguably a real threat to Google’s dominant role in the search sector.