Instant chat bot comes back to life

SmarterChild, a once-popular but now extinct "buddy" on AOL's Instant Messenger is poised to make a comeback--but its instant fact-finding will come at a price.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
A once-popular but now extinct "buddy" on America Online's Instant Messenger that freely answered questions on movie times, weather and stocks is poised to make a comeback next month--but at a price.

Code-named SmarterChild, the instantaneous fact-finding technology will be one of the first tests of a paid consumer service over IM--which has quickly rivaled e-mail as the Net's most loved application. In its new, advanced incarnation, SmarterChild will tentatively cost $10 per year, according to ActiveBuddy, the software company behind the technology. The tool will let people call up dictionary definitions, leave messages for other IM users, and keep notes using instant chat, among other features.

A test version of the tool, called ToBeSmarterChild, was launched a little more than two weeks ago on the AIM network. ActiveBuddy is still in negotiations with all of the major IM networks to host the so-called bot on its debut, which is expected mid-February.

The Dulles, Va.-based division of AOL Time Warner is reviving SmarterChild as a consumer paid service after nearly seven months offline. ActiveBuddy originally launched a demo of the technology in June 2001 to sell IM networks and corporations on the power of IM as a marketing and communication tool. But word of mouth among IM users on Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and particularly AOL resulted in short-lived success for SmarterChild; about 9 million people interacted with the tool until it was shut off in June 2002.

ActiveBuddy switched it off, fearing it competed too closely with tools from its partners, which included Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, eBay and Keebler.

The new service comes as AOL is testing an instant-chat robot, called ZoeOnAOL, on its service. The tool answers questions from AIM users about weather and stocks.

All of the major IM Networks are trying to figure out a way to make money from the enormous popularity and functionality of instant chat. Net businesses including Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo are quickly transforming instant chat into a vehicle for file sharing; transactions; private, encrypted communication networks; and access to real-time data. By adding such features, the IM networks are aiming to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

SmarterChild operates on a natural-language search called "buddy script" developed by ActiveBuddy. This script can communicate with various content databases, such as Reuters, to pull up answers on topics at lightning speed. The buddy draws on databases for movie schedules, stock quotes and news headlines, as well as a search function for dictionary terms and answers to math questions.

The company has created buddies such as "Googlyminotaur" for the rock band RadioHead and "dnLFlipit" for soda maker Dr. Pepper/Seven Up.

"IM is central to online life more than the Web, believe it or not," said Stephen Klein, CEO of ActiveBuddy. SmarterChild "is a way for people to access information faster."

Still, analysts doubt that SmarterChild will catch on with paying consumers who are used to getting services for free online.

"That's pushing a stone up a hill given the current economy," said Rob Batchelder, president of IM Intelligence, a consulting firm for the instant messaging industry.

When SmarterChild relaunches around mid-February, the company will offer users a 30-day free trial of the service. ActiveBuddy is targeting the service at young adults and teenagers who are more familiar with interacting solely through IM. Klein said the service is particularly helpful with homework, thanks to tools for looking up words or answers in the encyclopedia or researching Shakespeare's plays. The service will also match up people who say they have crushes on each other.

"The reason we put up SmarterChild was to test the ability of the platform to access all these databases of information," he said. "Now we're harvesting an accidentally successful demo."

Meanwhile, ActiveBuddy will maintain its focus on making its technology the de facto standard for creating interactive agents. It recently partnered with Computer Sciences to launch a human resources tool.