If there is “an app for that”… why should we care about bots?

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Ignorance is not bliss, nor is it profitable in today’s connected world

Bots

Image Credit: Nenetus

Facebook has certainly sent loud messages about the future of bots this past week. But, is anyone really listening? Bots are the latest buzz to sweep through the world of mobile users. Many are predicting that bots will replace the current mobile phone “apps”. Actually, bots or “chat bots” have been around for decades. So, why this sudden obsession with them? Where do bots come from? More importantly, how and when would you use them? Based upon Facebook and other major player’s plans, you’ll be hearing a lot more hype about bots very soon. Does it really make any difference to you and me if the world now goes bot crazy?

Why this is important: Bots enable consumers to directly message a business automating all kinds of interactions. Through artificial intelligence bots can learn your preferences, but is the convenience worth the potential loss of control and privacy?

What exactly is a bot?

A bot or a “chat bot” has literally been around for decades. Bots are essentially pre-programmed interactions you can have with another entity via text or messenger. A bot is essentially software designed to enable you to automate certain kinds of tasks that you would do on your own through a web interface or phone. Things like fetching curated information, making a reservation, or placing an order can be accomplished through a programmed bot.

Increasingly bots are taking the form of automated interactions that live inside of messaging apps. Which is why Mark Zuckerberg was hyping a “bot world” inside of Facebook Messenger this past week. These messenger style bots simulate “conversation”, accomplish your desired task and send confirmation back to you.

What can bots do?

Zuckerberg essentially laid out his 10 year plan where he pushed bots very hard as part of the Facebook Messenger strategy. He positioned the value of bots in very simple terms:

“We think you should be able to message a business like you would message a friend.”  Mark Zuckerberg

If you haven’t used a bot yet, it’s a bit hard to understand their value. Essentially, a bot can be used to handle a variety of customer service requests that historically has required a telephone call with a human being. A bot like X.ai can be added to your email thread and take over the back and forth “conversation” needed to schedule a meeting, and then alert you when the meeting is scheduled, and even add it to your calendar. The potential savings in time and hassle to schedule a meeting with other busy people could have real value.

But, isn’t there an “app for that”?

The consumer transition to mobile devices has accelerated the proliferation of “apps” for accessing information, searching, and ordering directly from companies. There are currently over 1.5 million apps for Apple devices, and more than 1.6 million for Android devices. There is certainly no shortage of apps available! Indeed, there is an app for almost every purpose imaginable.

Phone apps are software programs designed to be downloaded and installed as software on your mobile device, especially smartphones. Apps from phones enable consumers to check the weather, order their favorite Starbucks coffee, or access their social media like Facebook. The mobile apps that consumers actually use are highly valued by retailers to engage and sell customers. The challenge is that consumers only use about 5 main apps on their phones. Consumers simply do not want to install a different unique app for every business and retailer.

Are bots better? Will they replace apps?

Part of the hype about the rise of bots is that there is perceived consumer “fatigue” with mobile apps. Consumers are buying less apps, installing less, and using only a select few on a regular basis. Another argument made for the bot is the consumers have moved toward text and chat, especially the millennials.

Will bots become the app killer? Not likely anytime soon. In a very real sense, bots are very primitive. They function via simple text exchanges, which can be automated. In contrast, apps typically have a very graphical interface and can deliver rich content, including highly visual interactive gaming. Currently, bots cannot begin to deliver the same user experience as a well-developed mobile app. Bots really serve a different role and purpose.

 

Bots

Image Credit: Salvatore Vuono

So, why is Facebook and Microsoft making such a big deal about bots?

The key factor to remember about today’s bots is that they are essentially “chat bots”. They essentially reside within a chat or messenger program. The reason that Facebook is hyping bot so much is that Facebook Messenger can become the core platform/portal for bots. Microsoft, Google and WeChat all have messaging services that become platforms for bots. Facebook has 900 million users on Messenger, so it can be immediately become a “power broker” for bots, thereby usurping some of the dominance of Apple and Android app stores.

Why are retailers interested in bots if they are more limited than apps?

The essence of omnichannel is reaching consumers where they are, in the moment, and how they want to communicate. If bots can provide convenience and value through a messenger platform that consumers already use, they could open up new touch points and ways to add value. While it is still very early, bots offer some intriguing value propositions:

  • Apps are much more expensive and take much longer to build
  • Consumers have to download the apps and install them on their phones
  • Consumers only routinely use an average of 5 apps
  • Bots are far less expensive and will run on a single chat/messenger platform
  • Messaging platforms are exploding globally, more rapidly than apps
  • Almost all consumers use some form of chat and messaging on mobile devices
  • AI (Artificial Intelligence) is rapidly improving the bots ability to adapt and predict

What are the pitfalls and drawbacks of bots?

Bots are certainly the “shiny new object” drawing a lot of media attention. But, the reality is that the current functionally of bots is quite limited. The “communication” for the most part is text message notification and interaction with a machine.

While bots can be developed quickly and cheaply for message platforms, the proliferation of bots poses some very real questions with potential pitfalls for consumers:

  • If different bots bring all their text messages, phones will quickly become clogged
  • How will we find important messages from family and friends amongst all the bot texts
  • Do we want to open up our mobile ids to bots who can then spam us?
  • What about security and rights to privacy for information shared via bots?
  • Do we really want Facebook or another Messenger as our core platform?
  • What happens when a hacker gains access to our messenger and phone number?

The future of bots – The consumer will decide!

If a bot can provide incredible convenience and time savings, you would probably use it … IF it is safe and secure. But, right now the status of bots is a lot like IoT (Internet of Things) … very few consumers know what they are, or see the practical value in their daily life. If retailers can’t demonstrate that their bots make things easy, then consumers will quickly vote with their “non-use”.

Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but do I really want to exchange texts with a machine?

I have already voted … and the future “bot” in my life has a name: Alexa (Amazon Echo). Alexa makes my life very easy, and she talks to me so I don’t have to text with my big fingers on my phone!

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