Why the Killer App of 2016 Won’t Actually Be an App

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

2016 is a brand-new year, and we’re already optimistic about the new gadgets and apps that the best tech companies, both established giants and innovative newcomers, will introduce in the months ahead. But what if the killer app that’ll surface in the new year, and change the way you use your phone in 2016 and beyond, isn’t even an app at all?

That’s exactly what we think is going to happen in 2016. This year, chatbots are going to claim the crown of “killer app,” without actually being an app. Apps have emerged an alternative to the slow and ad-laden mobile web, but most people prefer to use just a few apps regularly. One of those apps is probably a messaging app — the kind you use to send your friends emojis all day and reassure your mom that you’re still alive.

Soon, you’ll be able to use that messaging app to text a bot — or an assortment of different bots — bots that will be able to call you a taxi, order takeout from your favorite restaurant, or automatically perform myriad other tasks that are enabled by demand-economy apps that you don’t want to bother downloading from the App Store.

Genius idea, right? Like many other great ideas in the app world, the idea of chat-based interfaces for shopping, news, and other services originated in Asia, with apps like WeChat and Line. The integration of chatbots that can effectively replace apps makes the messaging app more useful, more addictive, and more likely to be something that you’ll use extensively everyday. So the most popular messaging apps among U.S. users are scrambling to follow suit.

As Casey Newton reports for The Verge, it’s advancements in natural language processing that have made it possible to build software that understands our requests and personalizes its responses. Some technologists and venture capitalists are skeptical that the technology we have now can really live up to the hype surrounding bots, especially since we want them to perform as text-based virtual assistants. But many entrepreneurs are convinced that messaging is the next big interface, and that your favorite messaging app will soon become a convenient and comfortable portal to lots of other apps and services.

Facebook Messenger is building M, a Messenger-based personal assistant that uses a hybrid of artificial intelligence and human assistance. A startup called Operator has introduced an app that also uses a mix of AI and human aid to enable you to shop through a text-based conversation. Magic uses trained contractors to answer your text-based requests. Fin is rather secretively developing an “intelligent entity” to complete “digital chores” for you. Team chat app Slack has introduced an array of smart bots to help you get more out of its messaging app, adding functionality you can access with natural language inquiries. And Google is reportedly building a new, smarter messaging app, complete with chatbots to respond to questions and requests.

Josh Constine reports for TechCrunch that the quest for the ultimate bot is getting even more ambitious with a chatbot called Assist. Its job? To aggregate APIs (application programming interfaces, bits of software that enable apps to talk to one another) for the purpose of enabling you to interact with a growing number of on-demand services, like GrubHub, Eat24, Postmates, Uber, Lyft, OpenTable, and StubHub. The best part is that Assist doesn’t even need its own app to do that.

Just message Assist on Facebook Messenger, Slack, Telegram, or even via a regular SMS message, and it’ll text back with a menu of options: “Get a ride, food delivery, restaurant reservations, hire courier, book hotels.” Select an option, then follow the prompts to complete a transaction. You’ll pay for products and services via Stripe, and Assist isn’t charging an additional markup, a service charge, or even a subscription fee. (Instead, Assist earns money with affiliate fees.)

Unlike services like Facebook M, Assist is relying entirely on APIs and artificial intelligence, and there aren’t humans on the other end of those text conversations. By adding more APIs and options to its menu of actions, the goal is to become the interface between you and the growing stable of on-demand services that you have at your disposal. Instead of having to sort through or download apps, you can simply take a task to Assist, which will choose a service for you. The model promises to scale much more smoothly than it would if it relied on human operators.

It’s a novel idea to provide a valuable service to users without offering an app, and instead piggybacking on popular interfaces like SMS, Slack, and Facebook Messenger. Constine suspects that Assist is one of the first chat bots created with an unannounced chat SDK from Facebook, which enables developers to build bots in Messenger for shopping, booking travel, and other tasks.

Users will be able to send text messages to these bots, which Constine reports will automatically respond with “information, images, location services, product prices, Buy buttons, and more.” The bots will be able to take advantage of Messenger’s built-in payments system. Facebook hasn’t yet shared any of the documentation on the SDK publicly, but Constine thinks that the effort will eventually lead to an open platform beyond its early experiments.

Facebook’s goal seems to be to turn Messenger into what Constine characterizes as “a chat app with super powers,” which would explain why the company is opening the door to bots that would compete with its own assistant, M. Facebook is likely to use M to learn about what users want, and figure out what’s possible with Messenger bots. TechCrunch reports that Facebook seems to be testing in-line bots, similar to those seen in Telegram and Kik, in addition to full-fledged bot accounts built using the SDK.

Constine notes that just as keyword search is at the center of the web, messaging is at the heart of mobile. In 2016, you can expect to see chat bots pop up on all your favorite messaging apps, testing ways to bring more functionality and on-demand services right into the interface where you text your friends and send photos to your family. Whichever app makes it easiest to talk to your friends and talk to the most-capable bots in the same place is likely to win lots of eyeballs in the coming year, so you can expect to see tech giants and startups alike competing fiercely to build the best interface with the most useful integrations in the year ahead.

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