The tech world has been voraciously chattering about “chatbots,” and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has already declared them the new “apps,” the next big thing.
But what tends to get lost in the discussion is the reason why these chatbots could represent such a power shift in the industry, and how they could fundamentally change the idea of “apps,” or distinct pieces of software in general.
First though, when we talk about “chatbots,” what are we actually talking about?
The basic idea is “conversation as a platform.” Bots (as people have begun to shorten them) are virtual assistants; software programs that you can talk to in order to get stuff done. Think Siri, but better.
This isn’t exactly a new idea.
We have had conversations with bots all the way back to the 1960s, and they were popular on platforms like AIM — remember SmarterChild
? The problem was these old bots didn’t do much beyond provide a laugh.
The reason for the current buzz is that people think we’ve reached a point with artificial intelligence, and natural language processing in particular, that this new crop of bots will be the one that breaks through to become something beyond a novelty and provides actual value to our lives.
Imagine being able to talk to an app like you would a human assistant. It fulfils many people’s sci fi dreams and it’s a concept that’s easy to understand.
But the reason why bots have the potential to upend the current order of things isn’t just in their ability to understand speech, but the ramifications that functionality will have on the idea of an “operating system.” Put simply: bots could blow up the traditional way we interact with software.
A tale of two bots
To understand how bots could shape the future, it’s helpful to look at two basic kinds of bots.
Let’s call the first kind “messenger bots,” and take the example of a recent KLM Royal Dutch Airlines bot rolled out within Facebook Messenger. This bot lets people “get their frequent flyer number, boarding pass, check-in reminders, flight status updates, and customer support directly in a Messenger chat thread,” according to Tech Insider.
This bot is basically like having a KLM customer service representative as a contact in your phone. Just text it within Facebook Messenger and the KLM bot will help you. Here’s what it looks like:
Facebook is rumoured to be introducing a “bot store” this month, and these types of messenger bots are already
wildly popular in China with WeChat, a messaging app with millions of users. Expect to soon be able to order a car, a pizza, or anything you want by texting the right bot.
Messenger bots are useful, but they are still essentially apps with different clothing on.
KLM could have a standalone iPhone app that does the exact same thing as its bot, but the theory is that it’s just easier to use a messaging thread that exists within an established messaging app, such as Facebook Messenger. It’s important to note that these bots are still distinct from one another. You have your KLM bot, your Uber bot, your Domino’s pizza bot, and so on.
If these bots take off, there will be implications for how much power “bot platforms” like Facebook (or Kik or WeChat) have, but it won’t destroy the “app” paradigm. It changes the feel of apps, and moves them to a different layer, but it doesn’t alter their DNA. They’re all basic software programs, and each exists with its own name and branding.
The reign of the user interface
But there is a second type of chatbot that could fundamentally change the idea of what an app is. And they could do so by obscuring the boundary between an app and an operating system. Those bots are the “universal” bots, the “interface” bots.
The prime example of this is Amazon’s Alexa, which has exploded in popularity thanks to the Echo.
My colleague Eugene Kim described Amazon’s initial goal with the Echo in this way: “It envisioned an intelligent, voice-controlled household appliance that could play music, read the news aloud and order groceries — all by simply letting users talk to it from anywhere in the house.” And Alexa is the artificial intelligence robot that powers the whole operation.
Alexa isn’t a KLM customer service representative. She is your all-in-one virtual assistant (like Siri or Facebook’s M are meant to be). When you want something, you ask Alexa for it. Her presence hangs in the air around you, waiting for you to talk to her. She is the operating system, not a program.
When you interact with Alexa, the idea of an “app” becomes murky. Where does Alexa end and an app begin? If you ask for the temperature, where is that data coming from?
Alexa has her own type of “apps,” or integrations with apps, which confusingly people also often refer to as “bots.” Let’s call them sub-bots for now. These sub-bots don’t have their own personalities in the way a Facebook messenger chatbot can, or Microsoft’s Twitter bot Tay did. They are more like adding a new superpower to Alexa’s capabilities. You are still talking to Alexa, even when you are interacting with a sub-bot.
An example is Alexa’s integration with Uber. In February, Alexa gained the ability to order you an Uber if you asked. Now, if you say one of many variations of “call me an Uber,” or “get me a ride,” she’ll summon you an Uber. You can even say “call me a taxi.”
That “taxi” moment is an example of how Alexa, and universal chatbots in general, are a game-changer.
Alexa decided that when you asked for a cab, you meant Uber. And most people probably aren’t going to argue with her. This means Alexa can subtly step in and guide you if you are vague about
exactly how you want your request to be fulfilled. Since people are often imprecise when speaking, this is a big opportunity for Alexa.
Historically, this “guidance” has precursors. Apple excludes apps that don’t meet its App Store standards, and Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer with its operating system for years. These are two different ways companies privilege pieces of software, though there are many others.
Even so, the general app paradigm is still this: you hear about a cool app, you download it, you see if it works, and if it does, you keep coming back to that specific app. That app has an identity, and if it’s wildly successful, can eventually become a verb. Uber-ing.
But with Alexa, you could imagine a future where you didn’t ever have to download Uber, or even set up an account. That first time you asked for a cab, Alexa could call you an Uber and ask if you want to use that credit card Amazon already has on file. You might not even be particularly cognisant of the name “Uber”: it’s just a particularly useful part of Alexa.
You’ve made a mental note in your head that Alexa can order you a “cab.” Then you move on.
And in a world where we interact frequently with a universal bot like Alexa, the company that controls that bot has a tremendous amount of power to decide which new sub-bots (new added functionalities) get a leg up. Everything from the brand of pizza you order to the source of the daily news updates you receive could be decided by the bot.
Because part of the charm of a virtual assistant, or any assistant in fact, is that it picks things for you. You tell it what you want and let it hammer out the details.
And there is power in those details. Don’t think Amazon doesn’t know it.