Chatbots Won’t Kill Apps – Yet ūü§Ė

“Chatbots”¬†are top of mind post-F8 Conference¬†last week, where Facebook announced¬†bot developer tools¬†for¬†Messenger. While not a new idea, bots are an intriguing concept. Could they be a way to streamline (or eliminate) application search and discovery process? I have at least 130 apps on my phone, and finding the app I want, let alone adding new ones, is a pain. Does¬†this¬†mean¬†discrete apps going to be replaced by a single chat window?

Unlikely, for now at least.

The idea of a command-line style interface to all apps and services is an appealing one. Instead of searching for and opening lots of apps, you simply¬†use¬†Messenger (or Line, or WeChat¬†et al)¬†as the primary interface e.g. instead of opening the Uber app, you just tap the car icon. If you send your location to a cartoon cat called¬†Poncho,¬†he’ll come back with the weather. That’s if¬†Poncho understands¬†your location. It feels like a beta-type experience, with the limitations of the technology becoming quickly apparent. But that will quickly improve and usage will grow.

The Poncho Messenger Bot interface

While the idea of chat bots and messaging apps eating every other app is appealing to some, not every type of app experience lends itself to a “conversational” interface. Bots (in their current generation at least) are best for utility-type queries: what’s my bank balance, when did my order ship, what time does the game start? When you are not sure exactly what you want, or you are looking for a richer experience, then a standalone iOS or Android application is a better option.

Video, music, games, picture-based services are all better suited to an app experience. Premium content owners especially are still spending big dollars on custom mobile user experiences. But the question remains, how can my app get discovered, and used? If bots are best for user-initiated requests, then apps (and their content) should proactively find the consumer.

CNN App versus Messenger Bot

The idea of content (especially premium video content) finding the user at the perfect moment is key.¬†¬†To cut through¬†all the noise on the mobile platform, smart strategies are required around user context and understanding how content preferences change throughout the day. Building models on¬†each user’s device and predictively pre-loading content is a strong way to build engagement in the crowded market for app attention.

The app paradigm will be with us for a while yet. Google and Apple want to retain control over the app and app store experience. They won’t easily cede control of a multibillion dollar ecosystem to Facebook, or any other messaging solution. And the handset OEMs are in the mix too. Watching the apps versus bots story play out¬†(and the bigger OS vs Platform battle)¬†is going shape the dynamic¬†in¬†the mobile industry for some time to come.