Microsoft makes bots the cornerstone of its 'conversation as a platform' strategy

Are bots the new apps? Microsoft is seeding developers with new bot-development tools to see whether it can encourage conversation to be the next big platform.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Over the past few years, Microsoft was licensing its Bing application programming interfaces to developers so they can incorporate things like search, maps and speech into their full-fledged apps.


But going forward, Microsoft is trying to make the idea of extending apps with Bing's intelligence easier. The company is packaging up some of its Bing intelligence and delivering it to developers in the form of bots and a bot development framework.

Microsoft officials showed off the company's new bot framework and newly available bots at its Build 2016 developers conference in San Francisco this week.

While Microsoft recently had its own social-chat bot experiment -- a teen bot called Tay.ai -- go awry -- the company is pushing ahead with more productivity-centric bots.

This new Microsoft strategy is all about "conversation as a platform," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told Build attendees. "It's the power of human language applied to all computer interfaces," and makes use of machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies under the hood.

"Human language is the new user interface layer," Nadella said.

The idea of building special-function bots to handle specific tasks, such as booking hotel rooms or ordering pizza, isn't a new concept. (Check out this recent post from Slack about its bot focus, for example.)

But Microsoft's emphasis on making the tools for building these bots available to developers -- and linking these bots to digital personal assistants, like Cortana -- is where the company is hoping to differentiate itself from its competitors.

Microsoft is making a new Cortana app store available, and will be providing testers with an early preview of new Cortana experiences "in the coming months" via which Cortana will be able to assist with predictive actions, such as looking at users mail and calendar (with their permission) to proactively schedule events on users' behalf.

On the bot front, Microsoft is providing the ability to build not just plain text bots, but also bots that can interact with users via video, animations and ultimately holograms via Microsoft's HoloLens mixed-reality goggles.

Microsoft kicked things off by making a handful of its own Skype bots available to users of its Skype iOS, Android and Windows apps, starting on March 30. The company also is releasing a new Skype Bot software development kit so third-party developers can build their own Skype bots.

At Build, Microsoft also announced it is rebranding the Cortana Analytics Suite as the "Cortana Intelligence Suite." The newly rebranded suite also is being repositioned as a vehicle for developers to get analytics data on not just their apps, but also on bots and agents that they build.

Microsoft is adding some of the Microsoft-Research-developed Project Oxford vision, speech and other interfaces in preview form to a new preview of the Cortana Intelligence Suite, as well. Pricing is here for these new cognitive services, which include those Oxford APIs and more.

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