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Facebook M virtual assistant could be all about ads

Matt Kapko | Aug. 28, 2015
Facebook has big plans for M, its new virtual assistant that provides a mix of human and machine-driven intelligence, but it will have to earn the trust of users if M is to rival Siri or Google Now.

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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.

( 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

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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.


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