Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft Readies Next Phase of Its Convo-as-a-Service Plan

When Microsoft introduced its bot platform and started talking up "Conversation as a Service" last year at Build, it was the birth of the company’s bot-mania.

I’m betting at next month’s Build conference in Seattle, we’re going to hear a lot more about bots, as well as "botlets." Microsoft inadvertently dropped a bunch of hints about this, many of which were collected by one of the best Microsoft sleuths on the Internet, The Walking Cat (known as @h0x0d on Twitter).

Despite Microsoft’s claims that tens of thousands of developers are working with its Bot Framework and Azure Bot Framework service, there doesn’t seem to be much traction for the company’s bot platform. If you look in Microsoft’s Bot Directory, there are very few new or interesting bots listed. Trivia Master, Meme Cat and Rock Paper Scissors are indicative of the types of bots currently listed in the Directory.

I predict Microsoft will try to cast a wider net for bot developers this year and here’s how I suspect they will do so.

First, every tech company’s favorite buzzword (AI) will be mentioned in whatever Bot 2.0 strategy Microsoft unveils. Other buzzwords I’m expecting we’ll hear: graphs, semantic knowledge, natural UIs and (of course) "helping people achieve more."

The new keyword I believe Microsoft will introduce into this mix is "flows," as in "conversation flows." Microsoft’s aim is to help developers more easily create bots by breaking them up into composable, discrete parts. These parts will be stored and searchable (and most likely purchasable) from a central store. Leaks have indicated that Microsoft has built or is building a BotletStore.

These "flows" aren’t the same as the flows that developers can build using Microsoft Flow, the company’s event-automation-service take on "If This Then That" (IFTTT). But the underlying concept of providing developers with an easier way to snap together multiple API-fronted components is similar. In the case of botlets, though, the focus is less on business rules and processes than it is on human-sounding conversational snippets and semantic interfaces.

The Walking Cat unearthed this description:

"BotletStore helps you build conver­sational flows that integrate with outside services, work across channels, and can reuse and share information and functionality. Behind the scenes the flows sit within an extensible knowledge graph and can be composed together like building blocks to provide one rich conversational experience. Flows can be deployed over multiple channels like chat clients, virtual assistants, voice-only devices and the Microsoft Bot Framework."

Developers will be able to string together new and pre-existing botlets, which will work across all kinds of services, including the Microsoft Bot Framework, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Cortana and Amazon’s popular Alexa, leaked documentation has indicated.

There may be more happening beyond botlets on the Conversation-as-a-Service and virtual agent fronts. Bill Gates himself hinted at this in an interview with GeekWire earlier this year, mentioning that he’s still very focused on "the role of natural language and all these interactions to create an expert capability to help you out."

This isn’t the first time Gates revealed he has advised Microsoft on evolving "personal agent" technology. (He said the same during a Reddit AMA in 2015.)

But in his latest revelation, Gates was very specific that "reading text" will be a core part of Microsoft’s strategy, and that "resources are being shifted" in the company to prioritize this natural language/Bing/personal assistant work. I’m guessing there could be some relationship between the text-reading technology and the semantic understanding work on the bot/botlet front. It’s the same groups (Harry Shum’s AI + Research and the Applications Group under Rajesh Jha) working on both.

When Microsoft launched its Bot Framework a year ago, its plans seemed more aspirational than fully (or even partially) baked. It will be interesting to see how far the company has come, and whether more developers both professional, full-time ones and regular users -- bite on the botlet concept once Microsoft officially rolls it out.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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