Many observers have been saying that the next big growth space in social is messaging apps, including Facebook's Messenger as well as WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Kik and a number of other competitors.
Now it appears Google is building a new messaging service, incorporating some of its artificial intelligence prowess and chatbot technology in an effort to catch up to the likes of Facebook, according to the Wall Street Journal. If the service has a new name, it's not yet clear what it is, said the Journal.
For its new service, Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., plans to integrate chatbots, software programs that answer questions inside a messaging app, the people familiar with the matter said. Users will be able to text friends or a chatbot, which will scour the Web and other sources for information to answer a question, those people said.
This all comes as analysts predict that messaging apps could eventually become one-stop shops for nearly all of users' needs, essentially making them the next portals. WeChat, for instance, is immensely popular in China and helps users complete a number of tasks, including retail ones.
Facebook in particular has been working hard this year to evolve Messenger after it broke it out as a separate app from Facebook. In April, the app launched free voice calling over cellular and WiFi connections. And in March, it announced Messenger Business, which is a customer service portal for brands. Brands can deliver retail receipts and shipping updates via Messenger, and customers can use it to change or place new orders.
Now Facebook is working on advancing M, a kind of virtual assistant that will help users complete tasks like booking flights.
The Journal also noted that Google has been looking to acquire a company that build chatbots devoted to the weather, dating, image search and so on.
Instead of typing a query into Google's search engine, users will send questions as text messages, to which chatbots will respond. Google likely will allow outside developers to build chatbots to run on the service, one of the people said.
Messaging apps are among the most popular mobile apps in the world, but as the Journal notes, Google's services, Hangouts and Messenger, lag behind Facebook Messenger. According to Forrester, Facebook Messenger is the No. 1 messaging app in the U.S., in terms of the percent of smartphone owners opening the app at least once per month. Google Hangouts is next, followed by Snapchat, WhatsApp, Skype, GroupMe and Kik. Viber is No. 9.