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ActiveBuddy lets companies control bots

The technology start-up plans to help companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Sabre Holdings build their own "bots" that send information in instant messages.

    Technology start-up ActiveBuddy says it plans to offer its software tools to developers, allowing companies to build their own "bots" that send information in instant messages.

    ActiveBuddy, which creates interactive agents that help people retrieve information via IM services, said Tuesday that it will now let companies use its software development tools to build their own bots. The company said its Developer Access Program will charge a small licensing fee for the tools as well as a fee for hosting a bot on ActiveBuddy servers.

    The company plans to make its tools widely available in the second quarter of 2002. New York-based ActiveBuddy said it already is helping 15 companies, including Hewlett-Packard and travel reservation company Sabre Holdings, build bots; it expects to work with 100 companies by the end of April.

    The program highlights the company's aggressive efforts to expand the capabilities of instant messaging, which is slowly evolving from offering informal personal chats to supporting applications such as file-sharing and videoconferencing, as well as multiplayer games. ActiveBuddy has been working to make its technology the de facto standard for creating interactive agents. For instance, someone could ask a bot when a movie is playing in a certain neighborhood and receive a short response that lists show times.

    The company said it hopes to see bots sitting on most IM users' buddy lists within the next year or so.

    "We feel that interactive agents are an exciting new way for companies to truly interact with their customers," said Gray Norton, senior product manager for ActiveBuddy. "Ultimately, we'd like to see companies in all industries and all places adopting our software to create and deploy interactive agents."

    Analysts agree that ActiveBuddy's program could "enhance the IM experience" for employees and consumers. T.S. Kelly, an analyst at research firm Nielsen/NetRatings, noted that companies have been struggling to keep staff up-to-date about internal news and the market overall.

    "Any tools that enhance the IM, e-mail or communication experience is a good thing," Kelly said.

    ActiveBuddy said that companies, including Hewlett-Packard, plan to create agents with its tools that provide employees with internal information, such as company projects or staff directories.

    Other companies are aiming to use bots as promotional tools. Sabre Holdings, for example, intends to build travel-information agents that help people retrieve details about airline flights and destinations.

    Still, ActiveBuddy noted that many Web surfers have yet to adopt instant messaging, pushing the company to branch out to reach a larger audience. ActiveBuddy is testing a Web-based version to its general agent, called "Smarterchild," which provides news, weather forecasts, reference tools, financial data, movie times, horoscopes and games.