Facebook’s ‘M’ Is For — Mobile Payments?

Facebook Unveils “M” – its new virtual assistant in a direct move against Apple’s ubiquitous Siri. One difference: M is powered by real live people. Will M make mincemeat out of other virtual helpers?

It’s never easy to find good help, but these days Siri’s not the only game in town.

In a direct shot across the ubiquitous virtual assistant’s — and Apple’s — bow, Facebook debuted M, its virtual assistant that the company says can do so many things (that let’s face it, we don’t want to take the time to do), such as make restaurant reservations, send gifts or book travel.

The premise, of course, is to make life easier for the hundreds of millions of people who use Facebook and ostensibly draw them even deeper into using the social networking program as an indispensable tool that keeps friends close (and, um, enemies closer?).

So, a few baby steps have been taken, and are being taken, for what might be a true Siri challenger. M is only in testing phase, being rolled out to a few hundred people in the San Francisco Bay region, which speaks to a ready-made testing ground for high tech.

But there’s a decidedly low-tech component to M that may indeed be a competitive advantage — that is, people. Real, live people. While M will run inside the company’s Messenger mobile app (which boasts 700 million users and is separate from the Facebook smartphone app), the feature will be staffed by a team of M trainers (a team that will, of course, be scaled up as M itself scales) who will ensure that requests are answered.

One of the key humans behind the technology, David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products, hails from PayPal. Might it be farfetched to think that someone from the payments arena may have some insight into how a virtual assistant — with the hybrid technology/human platform — might somehow bring M to transactions and eCommerce? Keep in mind that Siri and Cortana are purely tech features, and M, Marcus told Wired, is geared to learn from human behaviors. That might mean the difference between, say, finding a restaurant and remembering the restaurant with the great jukebox stacked with Lee Morgan hard bebop records that dovetails well with the songs on your playlist. Same with, say, bookstores or anything else — a highly personalized experience that translates well to a flexible app.

It’s likely a long way off, but a virtual assistant could conceivably expand to financial services — perhaps by helping consumers manage cards, choosing those with the best rewards relative to a person’s lifestyle (like travel) or spending on gifts (leveraging some rewards via cash back)? Perhaps M should be short for Miraculous, if this all pans out.