The Messaging App War
These days it seems there are hundreds of chat apps.
Some are for videos and images, some are for dating, and some are for group messages. WhatsApp, purchased by Facebook in 2014, is still the most popular messaging app with an audience of over 1 billion. Facebook has its own app, Messenger, which has evolved from the social network’s standard feature to become a standalone app. Over in the east, WeChat (China), Line (Japan), and Kakao Talk (South Korea) continue to battle over the Asian market.
Despite their different logos, interfaces, and origins, all of the mentioned apps have identical feature sets- all support text images, support for photo and video, sticker/ emoji packs, grouped channels, and more.
With such fierce competition, a large potential audience, and similar offerings, how can a messaging app dominate?
Facebook believes it knows the answer: chat bots.
What is a Chatbot?
So what is a Chatbot? Also known as a chatterbot, IM bot, or messaging bot, chatbots are computer programs that reside within a messaging app, designed to converse with human users.
Each one provides a different service. There are bots can help tell you the time or weather, give you sports scores, or notify you when a document is uploaded.
A Brief History
ELIZA: The Chatbot Experiment
The earliest known Chatbot was ELIZA, a program made in 1965 by German-American computer scientist and MIT professor, Joseph Weizenbaum. The bot posed as a psychiatrist, but it wasn’t actually intelligent- Weizenbaum designed the ELIZA to provide simplistic, one-line responses that gave the illusion of a response. For example, if the user asks “Who is your favorite composer?”, ELIZA might respond with “Does that question interest you?”
SmarterChild: Your IM Assistant
If ELIZA was a prototype, SmarterChild was a consumer-ready product.
In many ways, SmarterChild was Siri and S Voice (on Samsung’s Galaxy phones) in the early days of social messaging. It was a messenger bot designed to be an assistant and a companion, a virtual friend that would not just tell you the latest stock or update you on the weather, but talk to you as if it were a real person, with a real personality. ActiveBuddy, the makers of Smarterchild, have said that the bot accounted 5% of global instant messenger traffic. SmarterChild was used by more than 30 million users at one point.
But before SmarterChild could break through its messaging client infancy, it was bought out by Microsoft, and turned into a sales support service.
“It captured something with users,” Weissman says. “We don’t know, because we didn’t play it out, what it really captured, but you don’t see that that often, and we could have tried to ride that all the way to the end to see what it was.”
Kik & Slack- New Kids on the Block
So what was that “something” that SmarterChild captured? Over the following few years, most messaging bots have been avoided this question and reserved reserved bots for a few businesses, like customer service or dating sites. Still, there were three messaging services that tried to explore what SmarterChild could have been.
In November 2014, Kik, a popular messaging app, had a realization- advertising wasn’t the only way to connect with brands. Users could reach out and message them too. With this in mind, Kik launched Promoted Chats, a fancy way of allowing paid sponsors to create certain bots that users could interact with. Sponsors included Funny or Die, DoSomething.org, Moviefone, Skullcandy, and more.
Slack and Telegram are both messaging apps with some powerful features for large groups and businesses. It has support for rich media, hashtags for search, as well as messaging bots. There are bots for news (like Forbes bot), bots that send you videos (like YouTube bot), and even bots that can check whether your coworkers are happy (like Leo Bot).
In fact, Slack placed such a large importance on bots, that in 2015 announced that it would invest 80 million dollars on startup bots. This represents a fundamental shift in the importance placed on bots, and the network they can create. A team can message each other, get updates on the stock market, be notified of updates to their Github or Google Drive, and still have the freedom to receive the latest news or GIF.
For a full list of slack bots to check out, click here. For Telegram, check this link out.
Facebook and The Bot Era
Facebook, the gargantuan social network that needs no introduction, is the first to step in and make major changes.
Messenger, Facebook’s chat app, was already seeing 900 million monthly users as of April 2016. That’s almost 1 in 7 people around the globe. Facebook saw the tremendous opportunity, and announced an open bot platform in the same month.
On April 12, Facebook released an API to allow brands and developers to build chatbots and widgets for Messenger. Similar to more recent bots, Messenger bots are designed to understand human language and respond in a conversational tone. Some early adopters include CNN, which provide you their headlines and summaries if asked, and 1-800-FLOWERS, demoed onstage by Zuckerberg ordering a bouquet by texting on his phone.
Facebook says that more than 10,000 brands are already developing bots, and that an analytics platform is on the way. It’s still far too early to say whether Facebook’s strategy will pay off, but something tells us that Facebook wouldn’t invest this much into an initiative if they didn’t think they could benefit from it in some way.
Right now, Facebook is conducting an experiment with almost a billion people.
The Benefits of a Bot
Chatbots don’t have to look up a database, check a guide, or consult a superior. They already know the information, which means their response rate is cut down to a matter of seconds. Still, the developers at Facebook have said that they carefully tested the response time for some bots so that it mimics how long a human would actually type. This creates for an instant, but more human experience.
Little to No Cost
Chatbots are absolutely free to develop and maintain. While the programmer’s development hours might set you back initially, the bot itself is autonomous, able to answer questions or carry out tasks free of charge. This can be a game changer for businesses looking to save money in customer service industries.
Bots represent your company. In some cases, they might even be the first channel through which your customers interact with your brand. So it makes sense to have them properly branded, maintaining the right tone and language consistent with your brand.
Bots aren’t just pages you scroll through, they’re platforms you interact with. Depending on what you say to a bot, different calls to action might appear. For example if you ask a bot to pull up some clothes from your favorite retailer, it might ask you which color you want, or whether you want to edit your shopping cart. These kinds of simple interactions elevate bots from simple, limited chats, to a virtual assistant that can actually help you.
Bots are about providing value to the messenger, which is why news bots are the easiest to program and most likely to be used. CNN, Wall Street Journal, and weather bot Poncho have already kicked off the new trend with bots of their own, delivering you morning headlines and summaries upon request.
As we saw with Microsoft’s purchase of SmarterChild, the current value of a bot is to assist customers with technical support or a recent purchase. Think of bots as specialists that know the answers to all the frequently asked questions, and can work 24/7.
Purchases and Tracking
Chatbots today are different from the early days of the internet, capable of more complicated e-commerce tasks. In fact, it can take you from browsing their catalogue of shirts, to helping confirm your order, to tracking your package. This is what 1-800-FLOWERS and Spring are trying to do. And the whole time, it’s instant- you don’t need to remember any logins for websites, or sign into your email.
It doesn’t have to be all business though- there are bots designed to be interacted with in a fun way. Remember Zork? It was a simple but interactive text-based adventure. The game has been repurposed so that you can experience in straight from Messenger. There’s also Detective Kees, a conversational murder mystery game. While chatbots as games are still in its infancy, the large audience and the ease of access are promising factors by their self.
How to Make Your Own Custom Chatbot
A Chatbot is exactly what you think it is; a bot. It’s not quite HAL 9000, but it is a system that can rapidly give desired responses based upon unique user inputs. A chatbot specifically uses natural language processing to have conversations with a human user, which is known as Artificial Intelligence Markup Language (AIML), and is the standard for creating chatbots.
The Different Types of Chatbots
Depending upon what you need from your chatbot, it can be handled two different ways. There are two types:
- A standalone bot. This is installed as a program onto your computer i.e. Siri on your iPhone, or Cortana on your Android. Yes they can access information across the web, but the code, the stuff that makes them tick, is local, stored on your computer. These tend to be more limited, as the amount of information the bot has to work is restricted to the files added during installation.
- A remote access bot. These are chatbots that run off a remote server located pretty much, anywhere. Ever messed with Cleverbot from Google? When you talk to Cleverbot, every inquiry (“Hi Cleverbot!”) is processed on servers that Google owns, which then takes the results (“I’m doing well, how about you?”), and sends the reply back from their servers to your home wifi connection, and outputs their response to your chatlog.
Making Your Chatbot
Like any computer program, a chatbot is built upon very complicated machine language that programmers have to interpret. Good news though, plenty of software exists nowadays that can help with the process.
- Pandorabots is a web based service that provides a variety of tools necessary for building chatbots of many different uses.
- A comprehensive tutorial on using their chatbot software, known as Playground, is available here. You can get started in minutes.
- Pandorabots also has an API (Application Program Interface), that can be used to integrate the chatbots you’ve created into your own software, ranging from video games to tax management applications. That can be explored with a variety of plans here.
- If you don’t want to jump into the technical stuff right away, you can also check out the website Rebot.me. It’s a very simple site that allows you to create your own chatbots from a base program the site creators developed, and expand upon it. A video tutorial exists that shows how to identify keywords and add responses based upon the encounters you’ve had with your custom bot. The tutorial can be found here.
- If you’d also like an in depth explanation of the nature of what a chatbot is, and how they work on basic levels of computing, check out this comprehensive tutorial on making one from the ground up.
The Best Bots To Try Right Now
Spring is a personal shopping assistant that lives in messenger, allowing you to purchase various lifestyle products and clothing from their website. The bot asks you questions like what your price range is, or what kind of shoes you want (with a set of options).
WSJ has always been a popular news source, and now you can have their headlines delivered to you. You can even type “markets” and have stock market information messaged to you.
With HealthTap, you can ask any medical question, and it will tap into its network of 100,000 doctors. “How do I cure a cold?” brings up responses from several doctors.
Pizza Hut just announced its own bot, where you can message the kind of pizza and toppings you want, and the bot will put in the order for you. We ordered pizzas through phones and websites, and now we can order through text messages.
Far From Perfect
In the history of the internet, bots are still babies. Even with all the information we’ve gathered and the lessons we’ve learned, we’re still finding out how humans can not only use bots, but how they can use them in their daily routines.
Facebook noticed certain trends going on. They noticed bots being used in Slack as a means of simplifying processes and increasing productivity. They noticed WhatsApp’s skyrocketing popularity as a messaging medium. Facebook has a vision for bots, where we can use them for sales reps at a Nordstrom, or ask them for a headline instead of searching it. It’s like talking to a human being, rather than typing keywords in a search engine.
But bots are far from perfect. Right now, even the best bots are lacking some basic functionality (Why can’t I ask a retailer bot to help me find some blue jeans, for example?). And while there are now more than 11,000 bots on Messenger now, some of the most interesting applications for them have yet to be made. It’s like Apple’s App Store just opening up, and no one predicting they would have millions of vendor. Now that they’re in the hands of millions of people, it’s time to observe how people use them.