If the last several weeks have felt like a bots bonanza, it’s really just the beginning.
Tech firms have been working on ways to integrate bots into our lives for some time, and now, many have seemingly – suddenly – figured it out.
In their current iteration, bots live inside chat apps. Facebook Messenger, Kik, Skype – you name it, bots are on it, or coming soon.
But why the big focus on bots? Artificial intelligence has been the darling of the tech world for a while, but why does it need to live inside Facebook Messenger? What do bots offer that average apps don’t?
Many consider chatbots – bots, for shot – as merely a fancy replacement for 1-800 numbers, and while they might eventually replace having to call customer service, that’s not their whole purpose.
“We don’t see bots as a like-for-like replacement for apps, but rather a complementary offering that gives people a new way to interact with the brands and media outlets they love,” Benjie Levy, president and COO of theScore, tells techradar.
theScore just launched a bot for Messenger, aimed at delivering game results and other news whenever users want.
“For organizations like theScore, which already has millions of users on its mobile sports apps, this opens a new way for us to deliver live scores and news to sports fans in a way that’s totally native to messaging platforms, tapping into a new audience,” Levy says.
I’ve seen plenty of people ask, so here’s an explanation: bots are essentially automated programs designed to perform the same task over and over. They carry out their jobs extremely quickly, much faster than a human is capable of.
Despite the sudden popularity, bots really aren’t anything new. Companies have been using crude ones on their websites for years now – have you ever gone to an online help section only to chat with what’s clearly not a real person? Yes, sometimes it’s a robotic person you’re speaking to, but with increasing frequency it’s a machine you’re communicating back and forth with.
As of late, though, we’re starting to see the rise of a different kind of bot. These bots are refined, and don’t just answer questions – they help you interact with the world, all at a simple prompt, and sometimes without one at all.
They can give you a weather report when you wake up in the morning, book your next hotel room, buy you a pair of shoes or… deliver sports scores.
In their current incarnation, which is, to be frank, an early one, bots typically use information that you’ve previously provided to complete tasks. For example, once you input your credit card information for one payment, a bot can use it again, eliminating the need for you to enter it every time you want to pay for a good or service.
Some bots will get faster over time, anticipating your needs or learning what you mean when you use more conversational, non-keyword laden language.
Great! Throw away all your old apps, get a bunch of bots and life will be a piece of pre-programmed cake, right?
Not so fast.
Companies like Microsoft and Facebook are invested in making bots helpful and intelligent, but as they exist now, bots won’t replace apps. They live inside them, after all.
Go where the people are
If bots were created a few years ago, they might take the form of new apps. Today, things are a little different.
Data collected by comScore in its 2015 US Mobile App Report shows that even though the average smartphone user visits 25 apps a month, half of the time they spend on an app is in their most used one. The time spent on apps after Number 1 drops dramatically.
Under-used apps tend to be relegated to the back folders of our devices. I personally don’t like to download an app only to have it live on the 15th page of my phone. I want to have a few apps that do everything I need. I want to consolidate.
Turns out, big apps like Facebook Messenger want me to consolidate, too.
Messenger is one of the most popular apps ever, according to comScore, and for good reason: Facebook has essentially made it a one-stop shop, allowing users to chat with friends, exchange money and even hail an Uber. (Oh, and there was the minor matter of forcing people to download it that helped boost its numbers.)
Audience seekers like theScore see this app centralization happening, and they’re keen to go where people are spending most of their time.
“Messaging apps are huge,” Levy says. “This is the way the next generation of mobile users is communicating and interacting with each other, and it was a total no-brainer for us to be there.
“While we don’t know for sure how well bots will be adopted, we do know there’s a gigantic potential audience out there for those that create the best experience.”
The bot bet
Bots could replace countless apps that currently do nothing but gather digital dust and eat up space on your phone.
All you need is a prominent messaging app, and voilà!, a bot is at your beck and call.
“Bots allow you to do a simple task like reserve a hotel room, get your boarding pass, or print a photo without having to be encumbered with downloading an app,” David Parry, senior innovation manager at HP, tells me. HP also announced a bot for Messenger last week.
“Many customers either do not want to download another app or have space for one,” Parry continues.
Simplifying the mobile experience has a nice ring for customers, but businesses stand to benefit from bots as well.
As Levy of theScore notes, bots give companies a whole new way to reach readers or customers through an app that most of them probably already have and use frequently.
Instead of having to pour money into making an app, businesses can spend a lot less dinero to pay a developer to build a text-based bot that will work across multiple operating systems on apps used by hundreds of millions of people, as articulated by chat app Kik Founder Ted Livingston.
Of course, bots are a win for the likes of Facebook and Microsoft because they keep users on their platforms. These firms – of which Google may soon join – are basically handing bot-building tools to developers and saying, “Go, make these.”
Now that we’re on the frontier of this brave new bot world, the possibilities are endless. OK, maybe not endless, but the potential of bots to impact our lives is real.
“[Bots] will be able to handle administrative tasks both personally and for work without you having to worry about those chores,” says HP’s Parry. “The best bots will be those that take care of you and your daily needs.”
The future may seem a little lazier, but bots could eliminate many mundane tasks as well as help us more deeply and readily engage with the world around us. I’m excited to see where bots take us, and how many apps I can start deleting from my phone.