Just like “video killed the radio star,” some recent predictions suggest that apps will soon be a digital thing of the past. A whole new technology is emerging, called chatbots, and they may take over. Is this our reality or are we just getting ahead of ourselves?
What is a chatbot?
The concept is relatively simple and you might already be using the tech. A chatbot is a computer program designed to mimic a regular human-to-human conversation and help you with regular tasks – anything from replying to an email, scheduling appointments, booking travel plans or eventually helping you do your taxes.
Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are widely known versions of these virtual assistants. Ask them a question like “what is today’s weather forecast?” and they search for the answer from online resources. Or tell them to turn down the temperature in your living room a degree or two, and presto… it’s done.
In the example below from Chatbots Magazine (yes, that's already a thing) they show how you can easily access the day's news via your handy chatbot right within Facebook Messenger.
This is just the beginning. As the technology develops, the goal is to have intelligent conversations with these chatbots, either in written form (aka a “chat”) or in a verbal one-on-one. The more human and imperceptible the chatbot, the more successful it is seen – at least through the perspective of its developers.
By using artificial intelligence and machine learning, these chatbots can be programmed to learn the rules, systems and programs to help humans. The more the chatbot works, the smarter it gets, and theoretically it will be able to serve you faster and more efficiently. But that depends on how well it’s designed and programmed from the start, so developers at major companies across the world, including Facebook, Amazon, Slack, Microsoft and even Taco Bell are working to get their chatbots into the mainstream.
Who says apps are dead?
20-year-old chatbot whiz kid, Joshua Browder, is the founder of the UK-based company DoNotPay, gaining significant media attention as the “robot lawyer” that will get you out of parking tickets. Anyone who’s walked up to their vehicle and glared at that piece of paper tucked under the wiper will be quick to notice the value. By using DoNotPay, the chatbot will fight your ticket for you, referencing laws and definitions that are in your favour. And to date, DoNotPay has relieved its user base of over 225,000 parking tickets – not a bad accomplishment for a robot.
Money talks, and Bloomberg agrees with Browder’s predictions, citing the incredible potential Facebook Messenger’s bot platform and Apple’s soon-to-be released app/bot store for iMessenger will have on the digital economy. Analyst, Mark May explains that “mobile app stores alone generate roughly $40 billion in bookings annually, without even taking into account other revenue from such things as mobile marketing and advertising.” That’s a big win for apps, but he goes on to show how the bot market has a 70% higher growth rate over a 3-month period compared to the app heyday. With over three times the number of bot developers compared to apps in the same period, the potential is enormous.
As a Generation Z (aka Post-Millennial) in the tech world, Browder has boldly stated that "nobody downloads apps anymore." Rather, he and his advanced tech-world tribe are programming chatbots to take consumer interactions to the next level. Instead of downloading an app to your phone, then opening it and interacting on your own to perform a Google search, check traffic conditions or order a pizza, you’ll interact with the chatbot to get the job done.
“Emerging platforms have always really excited me, and certainly apps are no longer emerging,” Browder explains.
That statement might not resonate with much of the business world just yet, as apps still seem to command great respect with worldwide app downloads growing by 15% in 2016 and app usage also increasing by 25%.
Social networking giant Twitter may be on the fence about this trend, or at least its Global Director of Developer Relations thinks so. Prashant Sridharan spoke with Recode about the subject and sees bots as a supplement to the existing app world. “I’ve seen a lot of hyperbole around bots as the new apps, but I don’t know if I believe that…I don’t think we’re going to see this mass exodus of people stopping building apps and going to build bots. I think they’re going to build bots in addition to the app that they have or the service they provide.”
As with many new technologies, all eyes tend to look towards mega-giant Google for a sense of direction in the market. But even Google was slow to the gate announcing their Allo smart messaging app, a form of chatbot that did not immediately open its API (application program interface) for developers to start working on progressive integrations with other software. Reviews were mixed, as Allo was found to be helpful in some circumstances, but could deliver circular conversations in others — a common complaint about many chatbots to date. Then in fall 2016, Google made a relatively quiet purchase of a company called API.ai which may signal its strategy to ramp up the bots.
So for now, it doesn’t seem like apps are dead, but maybe the British whiz kid is forecasting something that none of us expect just yet.
Then, in struts WeChat…
So while apps and chatbots look to battle it out in the West, a brilliant revolution of modern device usage has been developing on the other side of the world.
China’s famous social media platform, WeChat, could stir up the pot with its concept of the “mini program.” Instead of installing multiple apps on your phone, tablet or computer, you can access any and every one of them through WeChat. With that one simple installation, you can then tap your way to any pizza ordering service, travel solution or photo filter to turn your device into the ultimate online assistant.
By making apps more of an on-demand service within one program, rather than a 'must-download to access' model, this negates the need for higher storage space on devices, regular updates to the newest versions and concerns over security hacks from every app on your device. And you’ll no longer have to register your personal information to each app or connect to other platforms like Facebook and Google to sign-in.
This is sure to be a massive disruptor if WeChat enters additional markets in a prominent fashion. At the very least, their business model will undoubtedly be mimicked and expanded by countless copy-cats worldwide, and that alone will be a disruption for apps and chatbots alike.