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Why Microsoft Is Betting on Chatbots As the Future of Computing

At Microsoft’s annual Build conference in Seattle this afternoon, CEO Satya Nadella announced that the company’s next big push is not a new version of Windows, or faster hardware — it’s chatbots, programs that you message in the same way you’d text a friend. Nadella’s grand vision for bots is to make their development easy enough that anyone, not just experienced developers, can do it. (Of course, even experienced developers make mistakes, as Microsoft learned last week when one of their bots turned racist.)

A Bloomberg profile of Nadella’s new initiative explains it thusly:

Apps are great for seeing a bunch of data at once, while bots are useful for combing through lots of data and returning an answer. Nadella uses the example of a personal checking account. If you want to check your balance, he says, using a bot will be superior to opening your phone, loading an app, entering a username and password, and tapping the account in question. If you want to look at a screen’s worth of transactions from the past year, a conventional app or website makes more sense. Want to know your October expenditures at Trader Joe’s and Safeway, add them together, and get a grand total? Bot.

In many ways, chatbots make sense. If you use Siri or Cortana or “Ok Google” or have ever texted your bank to check your account balance, then you’ve already used one of them. The grand idea here is that language is the main method of interacting with computers, not a pre-designated series of clicks and key presses. (This concept might sound familiar.)

But on top of users switching to bots, the possibly more radical thing Microsoft wants is to lower the barrier for their development. To that end, the company is introducing a bot framework that lets anyone create a program. (Their sample implementation was a bot that people could talk with to order Domino’s pizza.) Complex tasks that are difficult to code, like visual analysis, already exist within the company’s tool kit.

The possibilities are big for Microsoft. If they’re correct in predicting the next era of personal computing, then they’re essentially laying a foundation upon which everything else will be built, similar to how Apple popularized the concept of an app store. And like Apple with the app store, they’re offering a service they can charge money for, or take a cut of transactions that pass through them.

Microsoft Says That the Future Is Chatbots