Bots are already big, and they are growing bigger. In 2016, the total investments on chatbots showed a ~230% YoY increase over the previous year. In comparison, spending on mobile applications grew by a relatively measly 65% during the same time-frame – adding substance to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s much-talked-about comment about ‘bots being the new apps’. A recent study also found that, AI-powered chatbots are estimated to help in generating $20 million savings for businesses by the end of this year (the figure will grow to a massive $8 billion by 2020). Over here, we will highlight a few reasons why bots indeed have the potential to emerge as ‘the new apps’:
Surging popularity of messaging apps
The mobile app industry has entered the stage of maturity (mind you, it’s a relatively early maturity, and there are still plenty of growth opportunities). In the first quarter of 2015, the total number of active users (monthly) of the top four mobile messaging apps overtook that of the top four social networking applications, and since then, the gap has only grown wider. According to an Activate report, close to 3.6 billion people will have at least one messaging app installed in their smartphones by mid-2018. At a time when much is being written about the onset of ‘mobile app fatigue’ (on average, nearly 80% individuals use only 3-4 apps on their phones; only around 0.01% of all apps are expected to be financially successful next year), messaging apps are well and truly going against the trend – and their popularity is boosting the proliferation of chatbots.
To use a new mobile app, some time has to be invested. You have to go to the app stores (Apple/Google), look up the app you need, download and install it on your device, (probably) register on it – and only then can you start using the application. In comparison, bots are a lot easier to get onboard. All that a person has to do is find the bot from within the messaging apps, and things are set for him/her to start chatting. Chatbots built on reliable platforms are ‘always on’, and have seamless access to the identity and preferences of users. While it generally takes a couple of minutes (at times, maybe more) to start using an app, bot-usage can be started in a matter of seconds. The ‘significantly quicker access’ is a critical factor.
The artificial intelligence factor
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have important roles in the current ‘chatbot revolution’. According to Forrester, there will be whopping 300% jump in investments on AI-based tools and resources this year (over 2016). ‘Intelligent automation’ is helping chatbots simulate actual human conversations in a better way – with just that required touch of empathy and personalization. Thanks to the rapid advances in AI standards, new-age bots can also store, analyze and identify patterns in user-data, and even carry out transactions (everything is automated within a single chat window). AI chatbots with optimized natural language processing (NLP) and clean, efficient UI can do everything that a mobile app can (and then some more!) – and they are generally much quicker too.
Rise of the conversational UX
There will be an amazing 2.2 million devices compatible with voice-recognition technology by 2020. At last year’s Google I/O conference, it was announced that 1 out of every 5 searches on Android apps (and, of course, the Google app) is voice-based. Chatbots serve as ideal platforms for developers to implement ‘conversational UX’ – powered by voice technology. Users can seek specific information/service, and the same can be instantly delivered by an ‘intelligent bot’. With the accuracy of speech recognition software tools increasing steadily (recent stats put the accuracy at 90%), the adoption of chatbots with ‘conversational UX’ is growing fast.
Bots for all use cases
‘There’s an app for that’ might be an iconic phrase from Apple (the Cupertino company got a trademark on it in 2010) – but it is becoming clearer and clearer that apps cannot be used for every ubiquitous use-case. For instance, to book an appointment with a doctor or fixing up a session with a beautician, chatbots are much more convenient than downloading a full application. The average smartphone user would be much more likely to include the contact number of the concerned service provider (doctor, beautician, etc.) in their phonebooks – than bothering to install mobile apps for the same purpose. At present, the scenario is more like ‘there’s a bot for that!’
Mobile apps to bots is a natural progression
When the first-generation World Wide Web came along, no one had imagined that its popularity will be eclipsed by that of mobile apps one day (apps are considerably more popular than mobile web too). The shift from smartphone applications to smart chatbots is a natural progression too. In a way, bots can be referred to as the ‘third-generation communication platform’ (web being first-generation and apps being second-generation). Websites had yielded to the mobile operating systems – and the latter is now yielding to messaging platforms and the bot technology. It’s all in the flow of innovation and progress of technology.
Bots facilitate two-way communication
‘Talking’ with a chatbot is just like interacting with an actual human being via live chat. For commercial and financial requirements in particular, this bi-directional conversation is of immense importance – and the interactions should be in a seamless flow, with users providing information and ‘receiving’ responses from the bots. With mobile apps though, this interaction is mostly one-way – with users having to provide most of the information. Responses are, more often than not, limited to push notifications and the occasional messages. Receiving data has emerged as a key element of smart platforms – and chatbots are way ahead of apps in this regard.
Bots for business is a smart option
People love to communicate with businesses via messaging and chatting. In the United States, close to 65% customers expressed their preference for chatbots (over actual human beings) for getting their service requests resolved. What’s more – businesses now need to be ‘available’ and ‘accessible’ to clients/stakeholders on a 24x7x365 basis. The option of having a round-the-clock call center team for live chatting is neither practically nor financially feasible – and bots offer an excellent alternative. High-quality chatbots meet the ‘five-9s rule of availability’ (available 99.999% of the time) – and they help businesses in increasing the reach of their brands in a big way.
Easier to create; Quicker to deploy
Creating a chatbot is, in essence, piggybacking a new software on an already existing, tried-and-tested messaging application (e.g., FB Messenger). A new bot can be conceptualized and built much more quickly than a mobile app – which requires a team of iOS/Android developers (depending on the chosen platform(s)), UI/UX experts and animators, and a reliable group of app testers. The overall app development phase, on average, stretches for 6-8 weeks – and the expenses are, understandably, much higher. There are several bot frameworks available as well, which further ease the task of creating and deploying a new chatbot (continuous feature integrations can be done by tweaking the backend). Bots require lower monetary and time investments – and this gives them a major advantage over apps.
Note: Different apps have different types of interfaces, and hence, the learning curve for users becomes a factor. Bots, on the other hand, brings in a layer uniformity or singularity – making it easier for people to start using an already familiar platform. The need to get acquainted with a large number of disparate app interfaces disappears.
10. The growing app fatigue
Make no mistake…the app economy is not going to die out anytime soon. However, the fact remains that the ‘wow factor’ of mobile applications is diminishing rapidly – with new app installations becoming few and far between (in the United States, app downloads fell by 20% in 2016) and nearly 25% of all newly installed apps being discarded after single-use. On the Apple platform, 50% of the overall app store revenues are generated by 20-odd top developers – while the majority of indie developers are under the so-called ‘app poverty line’ (the difference is more noticeable in the Android ecosystem). As highlighted in the previous point, building times are higher for apps and promotional campaigns also involve significant expenses. The latest bots have cutting-edge features, rich conversational properties, and solid backend support – and as the app industry shows signs of slightly slowing down, they can emerge as a more than viable replacement.
11. The smooth blend of entertainment with information
Bots typically offer a nice blend of interactive fun and practical utility – something that traditional mobile apps often cannot provide (a business app is serious, a storytelling app is fun, and so on). By October 2016, well over 3 million LINE@ accounts had been created by businesses to launch their bots – while the number of bot applications on Facebook Messenger had zoomed past the 50000 mark. In addition, chatbot platforms are gradually emerging from being ramped-up versions of interactive voice response (IVR) tools, to actual smart conversation (text-based or voice-based) platforms. The interactions are natural, often have fun, edgy elements about it, and can potentially be more engaging than mobile apps.
12. Accessing information on the cloud is made easier
There are two ways to access the same information on the web. The first involves the hassles of actually searching on Google, parsing through the search results, opening links and going through the contents in them. The other, and much easier option, is to rely on an AI-powered bot for delivering the same information. It won’t be wrong to say that intelligent bots are doing all the hard work for users – who only have to place their queries, and get instant replies. This, in turn, is bringing down the ‘cognitive load’ placed on the users.
13. Portable, scalable, distributable
How can you share a mobile app? There are apps like SHAREit and Xender for file/app transfers – but to use them, they have to be downloaded first. The need for installing an extra app for sharing makes the overall process long-drawn and rather cumbersome – particularly when compared to smart bots, which can be distributed much more easily. Bot sharing can be done directly from the underlying messaging platform, and they can be shared to, or linked with, social media with absolute ease. In select cases, one bot can also ‘recommend’ another bot. Scalability is yet another major advantage – with bots being ideal for both SMEs as well as large corporate houses. Chatbots are generally dynamic, and they are well-equipped to handle peak and low demand volumes without any glitch in performance.
The enhanced portability of bots also give it a major boost over apps. Right from mobile digital assistants like Google Now and Siri, to email accounts, smartwatches, vehicle infotainment systems and live chat environments – a bot system can reside practically anywhere. Mobile apps, in comparison, have to function within limited interfaces.
Satya Nadella’s ‘bots are the new apps’ prediction does have merit in it – with AI-based bots indeed promising superior performance and usability over traditional mobile apps for many purposes. However, it also has to be kept in mind that bots are not finished products per se, and (as the Tay disaster proved), there are still considerable room for improvements, greater stability and bug-free assurance. Mobile apps are way too popular to give way to bots overnight – and over the next few years, the two can easily co-exist. Let’s just say that, in the realm of technology, apps are the ‘present’, while bots indeed have the potential to become the ‘future’.