Facebook chat bots might be the future, but right now they feel like the past


Apps are old school. Bots are the future. “Conversational UIs” will replace the web.

That, in a nutshell, is the thinking behind a developer gold rush happening right now. Facebook announced bots for Messenger just three months ago, and already there are 11,000 bots hoping to reach the nearly one billion Facebook Messenger users.

Related: 11,000 bots now live on Facebook Messenger after just three months

But are these bots worth using right now? Can talking to a script really feel like talking to a person, to the point where it becomes useful? And can such a chat conversation really be easier than just opening a website, or an app, to get something done?

To find out, we tried opening some apps and comparing them to their chat bot counterparts in Facebook Messenger. Here’s what we found.

We weren’t sure which bot to start chatting with, and Poncho looked friendly enough. So we started there.

Poncho is a weather app best known for sending chipper daily weather updates over SMS or an iPhone app. If you start chatting with Poncho over Messenger, he’ll helpfully ask where you live, and what time you’d like to get daily one-line weather summaries.

The updates are simple enough, and easy to read from a notification without every actually opening Messenger. It doesn’t have a lot of detail, which is why you might want to ask a follow-up question. This is where you might get in trouble.

Poncho can only parse a few phrases, and you need to state them exactly. You can get a list of phrases by typing “help,” which is basically the master command for bots at this point. Poncho will give you a quick list of questions he can answer, like “do I need sunglasses?”

These questions all work. But part of conversation is follow-up questions, and that’s where Poncho goes legs-up. You can ask when it’s raining. Just don’t ask when the rain will stop.

Instead, you should follow the “help” instructions and type “hourly forecast.” Do this, and Poncho will give you hour-by-hour cards you can page through.

So, Poncho as a bot isn’t really conversational. It’s responsive to a particular set of commands. And if you want to talk to Poncho, you need to memorize what those commands are. Stray too far, and he’ll get confused.

The app’s daily updates are worthwhile. There’s not a lot of detail, but that’s kind of the point. It’s supposed to be simple. But the updates don’t do anything that a standard app couldn’t.

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