Facebook unveils new features at conference

Posted at 1:08 PM, Apr 12, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Facebook says people who use its Messenger chat service will soon be able to order flowers, shop for shoes and talk with a variety of businesses by sending them direct text messages.

At its annual conference for software developers Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook is releasing new tools that businesses can use to build "chatbots," or programs that can talk to customers in conversational language.

"We think you should just be able to message a business the same way that you message a friend," Zuckerberg said, noting many people hate the experience of calling businesses on the phone.

Facebook is trying to encourage people to spend more time and do more things on its social network and related apps. This at a time when some reports indicate people may be sharing less personal information on the social network — either because of privacy concerns or the growing appeal of competing apps.

That underscores the importance for Facebook of adding more features to its Messenger and WhatsApp chat services: It needs to keep people engaged — and continue to learn about their interests for advertising purposes, said analyst Ben Bajarin of the Creative Strategies research firm.

Facebook is also putting a high priority on creating new video features, both as a way to hold people's interest and to show them ads.

It's been making it easier for celebrities and media outlets, as well as individual users, to stream live video on the social network. Now it's releasing software that it hopes developers will use to build apps for streaming video from drones and other gadgets.

Facebook has also developed its own camera — a special device designed to take "immersive" 360-degree video that can be shared on the social network. Chief Product Officer Chris Cox said Facebook doesn't plan to sell the camera to consumers but will share its design to encourage other firms to find new uses for 360-degree video.

The new video push is part of Facebook's effort to compete against Twitter, SnapChat, YouTube and others working on new ways to serve video-hungry viewers. While it doesn't sell ads for live video streams — not yet, anyway — analysts say Facebook has seen early success with other types of video commercials.

Facebook, meanwhile, is adding new uses for Messenger at a time when more people are embracing the Internet chat service, and its competitors, as way to communicate with friends as well as businesses. Facebook Inc. announced last week that Messenger has 900 million active users, while WhatsApp, another messaging service owned by Facebook, claims 1 billion.

"More and more of our mobile time is spent within messaging," said Ken Sena, an investment analyst at Evercore ISI, who examined the apps in a recent report. He's one of several analysts who believe consumers would prefer talking to a business within the messaging app they're already using, rather than download a separate app and create another user name and password for each business.

That's already a popular model in some Asian countries, where people use China's WeChat, Japan's Line and other texting services to schedule doctor's appointments, pay for meals, order merchandise or send gifts to their friends.