The app is dead, long live the chatbot!

Does the phenomenal rise of chatbots signal the death of apps?

Chatbots, the AI-powered personal assistants that live in messaging platforms, are captivating businesses and developers. They’ve been hailed as ‘the new apps’ by CEOs and commentators alike, including Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. It’s a competitive market – bots can be found in sites like Kik, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Slack, WeChat… The list goes on. Between April and September, 30,000 chatbots were created solely for Messenger. However, according to David Marcus, VP of Messaging Products at Facebook, chatbots “got really overhyped really quickly.” So why is there so much hype, and could chatbots eventually kill off apps? Maybe… But there’s a long way to go yet.

Advantages of chatbots
Unlike apps, chatbots work via conversation, which comes naturally to humans. This includes spoken commands and questions, or text typed onto a messaging forum. By applying the power of human language to computing, bot-builders can offer a “conversations as a platform” service.
In short, chatbots provide an easy way for people to interact with a brand or product. This is especially useful for audiences that aren’t particularly tech savvy – for instance, a middle-aged parent may not be an avid user of Pokémon GO, but they’ll certainly know how to contact their teenage daughter on WhatsApp if they aren’t home on time. Just like our middle-aged parent, many users are only interested mobile internet for the purpose of keeping in contact with friends and relatives. In fact, 75% of all smartphone owners use a messaging app of some description. Chatbots utilise this, and extend the available services so that brands aren’t just targeting the technologically literate. It’s also much less hassle to do everything via a single chatbot than incessantly opening and closing applications, saving time, effort and not to mention space on your home screen. Not only this, but Apple have just released their new wireless AirPod earphones, which connect via Bluetooth and are compatible with Siri. They function primarily through voice commands, giving the user continual access to AI. When you team the potential of chatbots with enablers like the AirPod earphones, it’s easy to see why there’s been so much interest.

Apps aren’t dead yet…
So, chatbots have a number of advantages over apps, but do the stats match up? Are apps on their way out? According to a 2015 report by Gartner, app use is set to plateau. According to the report, there are just too many apps out there, and mobile internet users are becoming tired of them. They want a simpler interface, and it looks like chatbots could be the answer. But despite the rise of the bots, apps are still very much in the game. It’s predicted that the market will keep expanding, reaching a global worth of between $77 and $150 billion USD by 2017. Chatbots may offer a seamless conversational experience, but at the moment apps still have a number of advantages. Chatbots are relatively new to the consumer market, and still have to undergo adoption. Apps already enjoy mass adoption, with 100 billion mobile applications downloaded as of June 2015 from the Apple App Store alone. Bots can’t touch apps when it comes to visuals, either – but this will change as development continues.

How will bots disrupt our lives?
Although apps are still massively popular, the ease and accessibility of bots will undoubtedly change the way that people interact with brands and services. It’s a huge game-changer for marketers, who will be able to access and deal with potential customers on a seamless, conversational platform. Brands will be able to target their advertising to an even greater level, as chatbots can store previous choices and continually adapt to user preferences. The wider adoption of bots will make AI-to-human interaction even more a part of everyday life, leading to a society that is more comfortable with talking to robots. This is likely to positively impact the market for advanced robotics, as people become more accepting of artificially intelligent systems. Most commentators agree that bots won’t have a detrimental effect on employment, as human operators will need to respond to more complicated demands… But as chatbots evolve, they won’t need human babysitters for long.

The business perspective
Companies should be careful not to bombard users with chatbots, as that’s exactly what has been suggested as the downfall of apps. Never-the-less, going into partnership with a messaging platform could be hugely beneficial for retailers who will be able to access a wide consumer base under one roof, so to speak. Companies that have developed their own apps are likely to retain their regular customers, but it’s definitely worth getting in touch with some bot-builders too. Of course, it’s not all about selling stuff. Chatbots are already used by businesses for administrative purposes, with startups like Talla planning to create a general assistant for the workplace.

Ultimately, apps are still widely used and hugely popular. They’re varied, entertaining and pretty useful. But as great as they are, they fall short where chatbots excel. For example, a chatbot can order pizza, suggest a film and send a group invite to your friends, all at the same time from one platform. Without a chatbot, you’d be ordering pizza through a separate app, searching for a film on another app and then opening yet another app to message your friends. That’s a daunting task for someone who isn’t exactly well versed in technology, and it’s time and effort for someone who is. Chatbots seem to provide an answer to all of the problems associated with apps. At the minute, though, app use is consistent. Bots certainly have the potential to overtake apps, and they probably will, but it isn’t happening quite yet.

Will chatbots eventually kill off apps? Have you used a chatbot? Share your thoughts and opinions.