Facebook Starts Testing New ‘M’ Personal Assistant in Messenger

Facebook has begun testing M, a new personal assistant built into the Messenger app that can look up information and perform actions on the user's behalf. Wired writes:

It won’t take long for Messenger’s users to realize M can accomplish much more than your standard digital helper, suspects David Marcus, vice president of messaging products at Facebook. “It can perform tasks that none of the others can,” Marcus says. That’s because, in addition to using artificial intelligence to complete its tasks, M is powered by actual people.

The people supervising M in the initial rollout are called 'M trainers' inside Facebook, and the company is hoping to expand the team to thousands of people eventually.

Here's Facebook's David Marcus on what M is:

Today we're beginning to test a new service called M. M is a personal digital assistant inside of Messenger that completes tasks and finds information on your behalf. It's powered by artificial intelligence that's trained and supervised by people.

Unlike other AI-based services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf. It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more.

This is early in the journey to build M into an at-scale service. But it's an exciting step towards enabling people on Messenger to get things done across a variety of things, so they can get more time to focus on what's important in their lives.

As Wired notes, M won't use data gathered from Facebook accounts, at least not initially:

For now, M doesn’t pull from the social data Facebook collects to complete tasks. So, if you request a gift for your spouse, the service will make suggestions based only on your answers to questions it asks you and previous conversations you and M have had. Marcus says that may change “at some point, with proper user consent.” The service is free, and will be available to all Facebook Messenger users eventually.

Interesting that Facebook is using a conversational UI for an assistant baked into its popular Messenger app. I'll be curious to see how it scales.

See also: this idea by Matt Galligan from earlier this year.


NewsBlur Adds RSS Feeds for Folders

Speaking of useful web services and Slack, here's something I'm now using to make my own news-gathering filters available to others via Slack. NewsBlur, my RSS service of choice (I'll write about it eventually, I promise), has launched support for RSS feeds of entire folders:

These folders keep track of sites you add and remove from them. They also allow you to filter out stories you don’t want to read or even choose to only show the stories you have in focus.

All of your feed subscriptions in the folder, including subfolders, are merged into a single river of news in RSS format. Technically we use Atom 1.0 format for NewsBlur’s many RSS feeds, but I’m not choosing a side here.

This wouldn't normally be exciting for most RSS people like me, except that NewsBlur lets you train the service to promote stories you like and hide others you don't want to see, and now you can output a stream of important stories-only via RSS.

For us, this means that the filters I've been building for news I care about can be useful to others so that a) they don't have to subscribe to dozens of blogs themselves and cull their headlines over time and b) they can receive highlights with rich previews in a Slack channel. Great implementation by NewsBlur, and a perfect fit for how we're using Slack.


Slack as a Shared Notification Layer

I'm looking forward to Nuzzel notifications here.

I'm looking forward to Nuzzel notifications here.

Here's an interesting announcement from the Slack team earlier today:

You’ll soon find a button on many of your favorite apps and sites that says “Add to Slack”. Clicking the button will take you to an authentication page where you’ll pick which Slack team you’d like to integrate with the service, and which channel (or your own @slackbot) the service will report to (provided your Team admin/owners allow team members to add integrations).

Once configured, any web apps or services that send you notifications or emails can start automatically reporting those to Slack. Many apps and services will also give you the ability to share things into Slack without leaving their app; handy!

(Emphasis mine.)

We use Slack at MacStories, and we pay for the fantastic service it offers. Something I've recently started testing is using Slack as a shared notification layer for multiple users: rather than being alerted of important news or updates myself and then having to communicate them manually to others, I can let the notification go to Slack directly so everyone can know instantly and take action more quickly. I've been doing this with integrations such as RSS, Zapier, IFTTT, and the recently launched email in both regular Slack channels as well as a dedicated #aggregator channel where bots only report notifications and links.

With today's announcement, Slack is making it easier for developers to build support for Slack notifications even if their apps have nothing to do with Slack as a chat service. This is where Slack radically differs from everything I've tried before: it's not just a chat room with a bunch of integrations – it's a whole layer of services, commands, file management, search, and collaboration that is primarily advertised as a communication tool.

It makes sense, then, to properly support rich notifications as extensions for Slack: because users are spending hours in Slack anyway, services like Nuzzel can support native device push notifications (individual) and Slack notifications (shared), allowing multiple people to receive the same notification and coordinate accordingly (inside Slack, of course).

I've set up Nuzzel integration today (on the website), and, if my understanding is correct, I can expect my Twitter alerts powered by Nuzzel (and years of carefully curating my following list) to be available to other team members through Slack notifications. I have a feeling this is going to be a pretty great addition to our Slack setup, and I fully expect more web services to start supporting Slack notifications as a feature soon.

iMore’s Apple Music Guide

The iMore team has been doing a fantastic job at covering Apple Music and how the service works on various platforms and devices. Last week, they released an eBook version that collects of all their articles in one handy guide, expertly put together by Serenity Caldwell, Rene Ritchie, and the rest of the team.

I was on vacation when the iBooks version came out, but I still downloaded it and read it on my iPhone to see if there was anything I had missed in Apple Music and Beats 1. I discovered a lot of details I hadn't paid attention to before, and I like how screenshots throughout the book always have informative callouts and descriptions. Fantastic resource (150+ pages) for anyone interested in or trying Apple Music, and just $4.99 on the iBooks Store. Recommended.


Apple’s App Search API Validation Tool

I haven't seen this linked before – and I certainly didn't see it when I first wrote about iOS 9 search – but Apple has a new validation tool to test websites for App Search, coming with iOS 9 in Spotlight.

Apple writes:

Test your webpage for iOS 9 Search APIs. Enter a URL and Applebot will crawl your webpage and show how you can optimize for best results.

As I wrote, iOS 9 won't be limited to searching for local app content:

To enhance web crawling with structured data and, again, give developers control of indexed content, Apple has announced support for various types of web markup. Developers who own websites with content related to an app will be able to use Smart App Banners to describe deep links to an app (more on this in a bit) as well as open standards such as schema.org and Open Graph.

Apple calls these “rich results”: by reading metadata based on existing standards, Apple's web crawler can have a better understanding of key information called out on a webpage and do more than simply parsing a title and a link. With support for schema.org, for instance, Applebot will be able to recognize tagged prices, ratings, and currencies for individual listings on Airbnb, while the Open Graph image tag could be used as the image thumbnail in iOS search results. An app like Songkick could implement structured data to tag concert dates and prices in their related website, and popular concerts could show up for users with rich descriptions in the iOS 9 search page.

The validation tool does indeed analyze information that will be used to power iOS 9 search results – such as thumbnails, descriptions, and deep links to apps. You can try it out here.


Focus: Your Productivity Timer [Sponsor]

Focus is a time manager that helps you beat procrastination and work more efficiently. Available on iOS, OS X, and Apple Watch, Focus lets you work in intervals and reminds you to take breaks regularly (based on the Pomodoro Technique).

Taking breaks regularly enables you to be more concentrated, more thoughtful, and ultimately more productive. With its simple and lightweight way to organize and manage your tasks, Focus lets you set and achieve daily goals to keep you motivated; because its task management features are unobtrusive by design, you'll spend your time working on a task instead of fiddling too much with the app.

Focus is designed to work seemlessly together across all platforms and devices. You can switch devices by using Handoff and with iCloud, so everything stays in sync. On iOS, you can see your current progress with a Today widget, and use interactive notifications to start, stops and extend your work. On the Mac, a beautiful and clear design feels natural on OS X Yosemite (including dark mode), and a menu bar item lets you see your current progress at a glance (it even works with a closed Focus app window).

Focus is available for iOS and OS X. For more information, visit focusapp.io.

Our thanks to Focus for sponsoring MacStories this week.

Elegant Image Watermarking and Resizing with Watermarker 2

I'm a bit behind in mentioning it, but Watermarker 2 is out. This Mac app from developer (and former MacStories writer) Don Southard lets you quickly resize and add professional watermarks to batches of photos. It's a great-looking app that elegantly accomplishes its goal.

You can use custom text, import your own logo or image, and apply a customizable strike-through "X" over an image (all with adjustable transparency). You can also add pixelation to an image to obscure parts of it, and annotate images with additional shapes.

Watermarker 2 offers powerful batch photo manipulation features such as renaming groups of files based on patterns and resizing using pixel or percentage constraints.

You can save your watermark settings as presets, and apply them to batches in the future with a couple of clicks. There's even an Action Extension for sending images from other apps to Watermarker, and a Share Sheet for sending watermarked images to others.

Watermarker 2 Action Extension

Watermarker 2 Action Extension

Watermarker 2 is available for $14.99, both on the Mac App Store and through direct purchase (with a free trial available).

Instant Hosted Web Pages From Markdown With Loose Leaves

Loose Leaves is a handy (free) utility for OS X that takes selected Markdown text from almost any app and instantly creates a web page on the secure Loose Leaves server that you can link to and share.

Loose Leaves is available anywhere, and just a hotkey away in any app. If you've ever needed to share more than 140 characters, link long text in Trello or Slack, or just effortlessly share an idea from your notes, this is a handy tool to have.


Acorn 5: Shape Generators, PDF Import, and More

I've been an Acorn user for years now. I first started using it as my primary photo editing tool because I could open, edit, and export a perfectly-optimized web image before Photoshop had finished bouncing in the Dock. Photoshop has improved its launch time in recent versions, but Acorn has stepped up its game, too.

Acorn 5 came out this week, and it adds some powerful new features. Notably, it adds tools for vector manipulation and generation, as well as additional bezier and vector tools, PDF Import, snapping to grids, guides, other shapes, and more.

If you're a Photoshop user looking for an alternative, Acorn has the tools you're used to: dodge and burn, hue and curve adjustments, custom selection editing, and everything you need to do advanced photo editing. Acorn 5 can even import Photoshop brushes. Given the wide diversity of custom brushes available on the net, this opens up a lot of possibilities.

Version 5 also adds additional non-destructive filters and adjustments for both raster and vector layers, and the new Shape generators and processors are stackable and non-destructive as well. The layer adjustments are stored in the native Acorn file format, so you can always access and update them.

Acorn still has all of the great tools from version 4, including professional photo editing tools, Smart Layer Export for automatic 1x and 2x images, and the best compression on exported PNGs you're likely to find.

Acorn 5 is $24.99 US on the Mac App Store (also available for direct purchase, with a few small differences). Check out the website for more info, and read the release notes for a mind-boggling list of all of the new features.