Where before, you’d have to go to data, the data is increasingly coming to you — and, increasingly, coming to you via apps like Slack and HipChat.
It’s a quiet revolution in computing, as developers start to build smarter apps that can pull information from anywhere, rather than making you find it yourself.
A trio of announcements this week from Andreesen Horowitz-backed startup Blockspring, $US3 billion project management startup Atlassian, and IBM, tell the tale in minature.
- Blockspring, a graduate of the renowned Y Combinator startup accelerator program and the recipient of a $US3.4 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz, announced a new service to let you more easily integrate a bunch of web data sources with a helpful bot on famed business chat app Slack.
- Atlassian announced a beefed-up app store for its HipChat messaging product that lets you embed apps straight into any of its chat rooms.
- IBM announced a new service called API Harmony that uses machine learning to analyse and predict the best data source for a developer’s app.
The common theme here is making it easier to sift through data and turn up the right information, at the right times, in the apps you already use — especially your business chat apps.
You can already see the edges of it, as services like Slack start to let you do things like hail a ride from Lyft right from the chat window. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg, as apps start to talk to each other a lot more.
An important concept here is the “API,” more properly the “application programming interface.” That term describes the hooks that programs use to talk to each other.
So for instance, when you’re using Siri to tell you what song is playing, it’s going up to Apple’s cloud, Apple’s cloud sends a query via Shazam’s API, and Shazam’s API sends the answer back down the pipeline.
Blockspring makes the API its business.
In its original form, Blockspring sits as an extension in Microsoft Excel, letting you pull in data from services like Facebook, Wikipedia, the New York Times, or elsewhere, and drop it into a spreadsheet.
With today’s launch of a new Slack integration, Blockspring makes it easy to build bots that can pull in data from outside services and answer questions from right within your chat window.
It goes well beyond what Slack’s built-in Slackbot can do: A Blockspring-powered bot can read an Excel spreadsheet and report back, just for starters. You could build a bot that lets you put in a name and get back a list of all the social networks on which you’re friends with them, if you wanted.
“All you need is a bot to tap into that ecosystem of APIs, and it can have unlimited functionality,” says Blockspring cofounder and CEO Paul Katsen.
The important part of what Blockspring is doing, in the bigger picture, is that by building itself into Excel and Slack, it’s bringing the data to you, rather than you having to go out to the data.
And where Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, et cetera, dictate the services it can connect to (like how Cortana relies on Bing), Katsen says that Blockspring’s model gives people a much wider range of choice.
Atlassian is a $US3 billion project management software company that makes Slack’s chief rival HipChat, among other products.
Atlassian cofounder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes says that he thinks what he calls “ChatOps” will be the next big thing — the idea of making chat the center of business.
This week, Atlassian announced HipChat Connect, a new way to embed apps straight into a chat channel. The idea is fundamentally similar to Blockspring — it’s about bringing your data straight to you — but it takes more of an app store approach.
Basically, Cannon-Brookes says, chat is ripe for this kind of pivot because it’s where people get their work done anyway. Very little at work gets done without looping in coworkers.
Which means that chat can be a place where all these different data sources merge, but with people in the middle adding the context and the conversation that adds to the workflow, in an interface they understand.
“You have to have humans in the middle,” Cannon-Brookes says.
It’s not necessarily about speaking out loud, Siri-style — it’s just about making the interface a conversation, since everybody knows how to have one of those and get the info they want.
On the consumer side, Facebook’s M digital assistant has been tackling the problem by having human-assisted AI answer user questions to do things like order parrots for their frenemies.
And then, on the very backend, you have IBM and its API Harmony.
“No application is an island. Today’s applications must draw from multiple data sources in order to meet users’ service expectations,” writes IBM’s Dr. Angel Luis Diaz in an official blog entry.
The struggling IBM has made a big bet on data lately, even banking on a huge acquisition of The Weather Company’s digital assets to give it a competitive edge against cloud rivals like Amazon Web Services.
And its IBM Watson’s “cognitive computing platform” has grown beyond its Jeopardy-playing roots to become a kind of prototypical “ChatOps” kind of offering, pulling in data from disparate sources to give smart answers.
By helping developers pick which API to use, it’s only pushing forward the importance of the concept of combining data sources in smarter ways.
IBM, at least, sees the value of making sure that information is available at a level that’s much closer to the application. And it’s going to mean a lot more applications that play nicely with this new “ChatOps” model, helping data move around between apps in a way that makes sense to humans, not machines.
Take all of this in aggregate, and you start to see that apps are getting a lot smarter. And that your chat program is on its way to becoming the center of your digital life.
Disclosure: Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, is an investor in Business Insider.
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