Facebook has released a secret software development kit (SDK) to select developers that allows them to build chat bots for the Facebook Messenger app, TechCrunch reports. The Chat SDK enables Messenger users to interact with third-party services simply by sending a message in Messenger. Those services’ bots can then automatically reply with specific information, allowing customers and users to bypass traditional ways of communicating with services and businesses, such as via email, app, or phone.
The types of interactions the Chat SDK reportedly enables are wide-ranging, letting Messenger users request simple information from bots, such as showtimes from a specific movie theater chain, to more complicated interactions such as booking travel, shopping for goods, paying bills, and more.
When a Messenger user contacts a chat bot, it will automatically reply with text, images, buy buttons, and other information. The Chat SDK even reportedly takes advantage of Messenger’s built-in payments system, facilitating one-tap transactions to purchase goods without leaving the app.
Facebook actually unveiled its first Messenger bot integration back in December with Uber, allowing Messenger users to order a ride without leaving the app. The Chat SDK represents a massive expansion of this type of partnership to less high-profile services.
The move to allow bots to work inside of Messenger shows just how important the company believes its messaging platform is to keeping people engaged through Facebook’s services. Indeed, with the Chat SDK the company appears to be pushing a way to distinguish itself as a new type of "smart" messaging app—one that is more than just an SMS replacement—from other "dumb" messaging services like iMessage, Viber, Kik, and even its own WhatsApp.
That’s not to say Facebook is the first chat app to see smart bots as the future. China’s WeChat and Japan’s Line messenger apps have been using bots successfully for a while. But with its existing user base of more than 700 million (and growing), Messenger doesn’t need to be first to have a big payoff for the company. Increasing Messenger’s usefulness–-especially if it becomes an easy way to enable e-commerce transactions—could help radically boost the revenues the company brings in from its ecosystem.
The Chat SDK also stands to greatly benefit third-party businesses and services. If there’s a way for customers to contact and interact with them via their favorite chat app, it increases customer engagement, improves customer experience, and frees up the time and cost of developing proprietary mobile solutions like dedicated apps, which customers may not want to go through the trouble of downloading.
There’s no word yet on when the first Chat SDK services will launch inside of Messenger—and Facebook isn’t even talking publicly about its existence yet—but to get a good idea of how bots built by the Chat SDK will work, check out the video of Messenger’s Uber integration above.