During the Build developer conference last month, Microsoft introduced Skype Bots that enable users to hold conversations with helper applications using the software's text-based messaging capabilities (video and voice interaction modes are on the way). At the time, the bots were added to the latest versions of the Skype app for Windows, Android, iPhone and iPad.
Now, users of the Mac client or the Web-based version of the software can take the chatty tech for a spin. On the Web, the functionality is currently only available to users in the United States, Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, India, New Zealand and Singapore.
So far, users can choose from six bots, including Bing News, Getty Images and Summarize, a bot that condenses entire Web pages into a brief overview. The first batch of Skype Bots only offers a glimpse into what Microsoft has planned for the technology.
While clutching a smartphone on stage during her Build presentation, Lilian Rincon, principal group program manager of the Skype Consumer unit at Microsoft, demonstrated how bots and Cortana, the company's virtual assistant technology, can work in tandem to enhance Skype chats. The mention of an upcoming conference in a Skype video message sent to Rincon kicked off a series of in-app interactions culminating in a hotel booking and an outgoing chat message alerting a friend in the area about her travel plans.
By opening up Skype Bots to developers, Microsoft hopes to build an ecosystem of bots that help users complete tasks without loading additional software or requiring that they visit a Website. To get the ball rolling, Microsoft is hosting a Skype Bot hackathon next month.
Of course, Microsoft isn't the only technology company attempting to mainstream bots.
Last week, during Facebook's F8 conference, the company announced chatbots for its Messenger App. Though popular in Asia, chatbots are relatively uncommon in the United States and Europe. Facebook is looking to change that with the backing of early partners like HP, 1-800-Flowers and LivePerson.
For example, the HP Print Bot allows users to print out photos and text sent through Facebook Messenger. The 1-800-Flowers chatbot allows users to explore their bouquet options and place orders. Finally, LivePerson plans to integrate chatbots into its own messaging platform, which is often used to help businesses address customer service concerns with live, Web-based chats.
Microsoft and Facebook are bullish on the technology. Recently, the industry witnessed the unintended consequences of releasing so-called intelligent bots to the world.
In March, Microsoft was forced to pull the plug on Tay, a social media chatbot meant to mimic a young American woman with a playful streak, after it began spouting racist tweets. "Unfortunately, within the first 24 hours of coming online, we became aware of a coordinated effort by some users to abuse Tay's commenting skills to have Tay respond in inappropriate ways," a Microsoft spokesperson told eWEEK at the time.