The virtual-assistant market is getting awfully crowded out there. Apple's Siri kicked things off in 2011, Google responded promptly with Now in 2012, and Microsoft and Amazon showed up on the scene with Cortana and Alexa, respectively, in 2014. Now, social networker Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) is reportedly working on its own virtual assistant. James Bond fans rejoice, and say hello to "Moneypenny."
The Information reports that Facebook is working on its own take on a virtual assistant that it hopes to integrate into Messenger. Better yet, Moneypenny, as the project is referred to internally, isn't just some algorithmic personality that resides in part on your device and in part in the cloud. Facebook wants to make it so that users can utilize Moneypenny to ask real people for help with any number of tasks, including researching or ordering things.
Not much else is known at this point, which means that investors are being left to their imaginations.
But will it scale?
The most immediate question that comes to mind is whether or not such a service could scale. Naturally, one of the key benefits of other said algorithmic personalities is that they are nearly infinitely scalable. Facebook Messenger reached 500 million monthly active users last year and hit 600 million MAUs in March. That's potentially an awful lot of requests coming from a very large (and growing) user base.
Consider another Amazon service, Mechanical Turk, which is a way to crowd-source an on-demand and scalable workforce. It almost sounds like Moneypenny could be something like Alexa combined with Mechanical Turk. It's unlikely that's the case, but scalability would be a key concern with launching a virtual-assistant service powered by real humans.
But at what cost?
Cost concerns and scalability concerns are always intricately linked. Generally speaking, a lower proportion of variable costs is conducive to scalability. But employees are always a variable cost and it remains unclear how much more value they can add compared to the algorithmic alternatives. Nothing may beat having a real human answer questions, but the marginal difference in cost is extraordinarily high when we're talking about a user base of this size.
But will it work?
The other side of the equation is whether a Messenger-based virtual assistant can add to Facebook's top line. Investors have long been asking for clarity on how Facebook plans to monetize Messenger. There's no rush, as the company's ad business is thriving and the stock is at all-time highs (Facebook just reached a $250 billion market cap for the first time ever).
But at some point, Facebook will want to make Messenger into a business, and people definitely aren't willing to pay for a virtual assistant thanks to the precedent that others are setting. Other companies integrate their assistants directly and at no extra cost.
Ultimately, Facebook's potential entry into a crowded virtual assistant market may have little in the way of rewards, but the good news is that Facebook is likely devoting very little in development resources, minimizing the risk. Mark Zuckerberg might as well take a shot.