I want to buy someone flowers and have them delivered while she's at work. I could spend a half hour researching florists in the area that can deliver the bouquet I want, call to request a delivery, and dictate my credit card number over the phone.
Or I could send a quick message in an app called Operator, an iPhone app that will quickly connect me with a human being who will do all that legwork and process the transaction for me.
Operator promises to help find and deliver much more than flowers. In an age when apps are already used to order everything from groceries to transportation, Operator wants to be the way you buy everything.
The premise sounds almost too good to be true: you send a message to the app like you would a friend and ask it to find you anything from concert tickets to a piece of furniture. Within seconds, a person begins working on your request and presents you with the best option to buy without leaving the app.
Operator has slowly been letting in the more than 100,000 people who signed up to be part of its private beta back in May. Starting Thursday, the app is available in the App Store for anyone to download. Unfortunately, there's still a wait list to actually use it.
The startup behind Operator is led by Uber co-founder and chairman Garrett Camp and former Zynga executive Robin Chan. They began work on Operator 18 months ago — long before Facebook announced a similar service called M, the virtual assistant that can be used for everything from ordering parrots to drawing goofy sketches from the Messenger app.
In an interview with Tech Insider, Chan explained that Operator converges around three ideas: messaging as the platform for buying things, a logistics layer for moving goods, and the fact that everyone has a smartphone.
“We always dreamed of this as a routing layer or switchboard for goods and services," explains Chan. Operator wants to partner with all kinds of businesses, from small, locally owned stores to retail giants like Amazon. If a merchant already has a shipping infrastructure in place, Operator will use it. For other goods that don't have an easy method of shipping in place, Operator plans to introduce its own logistics layer down the road.
There's no added cost to buying something from Operator; you just pay what you normally would from the merchant. The added value of using the app is the access to what Chan describes as "a network of experts." You may not know the best headphones to buy for your 4-year-old, but Operator does.
Chan says his company has built "one of the strongest AI teams" to aid its experts in fielding requests, but declines to provide any details about the exact mix of people and machine learning involved in making the app work. It's an important question because it will determine how well Operator can scale to being used by potentially millions of people.
Here are some more examples of what Operator can do: