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Answer service too popular for AIM

SmarterChild, the automated answer service that predicts the weather, asks trivia questions, and plays blackjack, falls victim to its own success.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
2 min read
An automated answer service that piggybacked on AOL Instant Messenger has fallen victim to its own success.

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SmarterChild, a so-called bot that predicted the weather, gave dictionary definitions, asked trivia questions, and played blackjack with AIM users, became so popular that its provider, ActiveBuddy, decided to retire it, effective Monday.

SmarterChild is still available through Microsoft's MSN Messenger and Internet Explorer Web browser, where its total consumers number less than 1 million. Other ActiveBuddy bots are running to promote everything from eBay to Austin Powers.

But SmarterChild's AIM version, offered for free to America Online, wound up to be too popular for its own good, according to ActiveBuddy Chief Executive Stephen Klein.

"A year ago we launched SmarterChild as a demo," he said. "We wanted a few hundred thousand users to support our claim that we could support an infinite number of simultaneous queries."

By September, ActiveBuddy had reached its goal. Then, following the laws of Internet viral adoption, the number of users kept growing until the demo had become what Klein calls "this distracting disease."

Before getting switched off, the AOL demo had attracted 8 million distinct users in total and was getting 250,000 users per day. That started consuming hardware and bandwidth resources for ActiveBuddy, a small company based in Sunnyvale, Calif., and New York City.

ActiveBuddy is trying to convince companies that it's worth it for them to pay to have their own bot service. Companies using an ActiveBuddy bot include Hachette Filipacchi Presse for its Ellegirl.com site, New Line Cinema for its "Austin Powers" and "Lord of the Rings" films, Intel, eBay, the BBC and Reuters.

ActiveBuddy hasn't ruled out signing on AOL as a paying customer, though it denies turning off the free demo as an incentive to get the company to pay.

"That was not the intention at all," Klein said. "This was not a unilateral decision."

The shutdown comes as ActiveBuddy prepares to sell access to its software tools sometime this month. The company is also considering charging subscriptions for instant-messaging products through network and wireless partners.