ActiveBuddy Retires SmarterChild on AIM

Instant-messaging (IM) bot developer ActiveBuddy Inc. has retired its SmarterChild automated information service from America Online’s AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) network, partly because its popularity became too troublesome for the New York City/Silicon Valley-based company.

ActiveBuddy also said it retired SmarterChild because it proved what it set out to do — demonstrate ActiveBuddy’s capabilities in the IM bot arena. And later this month, developers will be able to create their own SmarterChild-like IM bots through a new program from ActiveBuddy.

SmarterChild was born in late June of 2001 to enable users to access real-time news and information via IM on AIM, MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. It quickly built a following purely from word-of-mouth buzz and reached the 8 million unique screen name mark last May — more than 1 million users per week — with a vast majority of those people accessing the bot from AIM, according to company Chief Executive Officer Steve Klein. The bot was initially developed and deployed to function as a demo for ActiveBuddy’s capabilities, including having the means of distributing content and services via IM.

With success, though, difficulties generally develop. ActiveBuddy was not an exception to that situation.

The company didn’t have a problem handing the increased load from a technological standpoint. One of ActiveBuddy’s goals was to show that it could scale up to meet increased demand from users — a mark the company definitely achieved, Klein said.

The problems came from mainly from deploying human resources to monitor the bot. “Just paying attention to it was a little bit of a distraction, because it is really not our business,” he said. “It’s not like it was breaking our backs, though.”

The increased popularity of SmarterChild also committed company resources to more of a publishing model than to its primary mission of developing software for IM bots. “You put something out publicly and it gets 8 million users, you have a responsibility,” he said. “It’s not our business, and all of a sudden we had a responsibility to serve this user base…It was a distraction for a relatively small company.”

Now, though, ActiveBuddy has several bots up and running for client companies, including ones to promote the new Austin Powers movie, ELLEgirl Magazine, Major League Baseball, Reuters and the BBC.

In fact, SmarterChild’s popularity became a problem with ActiveBuddy’s business end, because it had many more users than the bots it had developed for its customer companies, officials said. Both the ELLEgirlBuddy and Austin Powers bots were coming in behind SmarterChild. In effect, the company was competing with itself.

The SmarterChild experience, though, was overwhelmingly positive for ActiveBuddy. “We learned that IM is dangerously viral, to the point that it could throw you into a business you don’t want to be just by putting a little demo up,” Klein said. “People really dig this. They’re really into talking to agents. We had over one million a week and much more than four and a half million messages a day.”

“The amazing thing about this medium is that it takes the place of a medium that didn’t have a conversation,” he also said. “You never have a conversation with a magazine or a conversation with the person on the other side of a television set. IM is a medium that, up until now, has been used for person-to-person.” With IM bots, users can now converse with corporations that develop this content, Klein said.

SmarterChild remains active for MSN Messenger users, as well as those who surf the Web with most any Web browsers and who are subscribers to certain wireless services that Klein could not immediately reveal. ActiveBuddy is leaving the bot up on those networks because it still needs exposure. “For whatever reason, the AOL instant-message community seems to have been more viral than anywhere else,” Klein said.

The removal of SmarterChild from AIM comes just weeks before ActiveBuddy ramps up its own program to both give away its IM bot development software and sell services that will power those bots. The company will soon launch its BuddyScript services through a special Web site. The BuddyScript software-development kit (SDK) will be free to use.

“SmarterChild is going away, but now anyone in the world will be able to build their own SmarterChild,” Klein added.

Bob Woods is the managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.

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