Creating a new mobile app used to begin with a simple question: iOS or Android?
And if you believe the hype about chatbots (intelligent helpers that users can summon via instant message), the decision is about to get much more complicated. Tech companies like Facebook, Microsoft, and Slack are all opening up bot platforms within their messaging services, letting users read the news, shop online, hail an Uber, and get customer service within a messaging window. The idea is to allow for quick interactions that don’t require installing a full-blown app.
But even as these companies build up their chatbot armies, we’re probably not headed for another bitter ecosystem war, like the one that led to the dominance of iOS and Android. Instead, we’re likely to have lots of bot-infused messaging services living together in harmony for years to come. Here are a few reasons why:
At least for now, the best chatbots don’t try to accomplish too much, says Brendan Bilko, head of product at Dexter, a company that offers bot creation tools and also builds some bots on behalf of larger clients. Bilko believes that chatbots should focus on being good at a single task, which in turn makes them easier to port across different messaging services.
"Because they’re simple enough, we have the flexibility to go cross-platform," he says.
It helps that compared to building an app, making a chatbot is fairly simple, Bilko says. Bot developers don’t have to worry about creating full menu systems, artwork, and animations because a lot of that overhead is replaced by a messaging window.
"When you’re building an app for iOS . . . it’s a blank canvas," Bilko says. "With these messaging platforms, everything’s very much templatized, so the content is what’s speaking to users more than the UI is."
While chatbot platforms will inevitably become more complex, most of the work to create them may still happen outside of any particular messaging service. That’s been the case with Mosaic, a chatbot that controls various smartphone devices through Slack, Facebook Messenger, SMS, and Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.
Sumang Liu, Mosaic’s CEO and cofounder, says most of the company’s efforts go toward building those integrations and correctly interpreting natural language. So when the user saysm "I’m hot"—a statement with several potential meanings—Mosaic knows to turn down the user’s Nest thermostat.
"From our experience, the heavy-lifting work is on the back end," Lui says. "Plugging into chatbots is just creating an interface. Interface is very important, but Facebook makes it relatively easy for developers to do that."
With smartphone apps, developers gravitated toward iOS and Android—and away from alternatives like Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10—because of market share. Messaging is different because there are so many large-scale platforms already, and as developers experiment, they may discover that some messaging platforms are better suited for their bots than others.
Bilko discovered this himself while working with a business client to build a set of bots for Slack, Facebook Messenger, and SMS. Going in, the client assumed that the Slack version would see the most use. In fact, usage on Facebook Messenger was seven times greater. That client is now investing entirely in building bots for Messenger.
"Initially, it’s kind of figure out what works, see what piece of pasta sticks to the wall, and then go from there," Bilko says.
Even if the same bot is available on multiple platforms, the experience on each one may differ. With the group shopping bot Kip, for instance, the Slack version focuses on coordinating purchases with a team of employees, so they can purchase lunch together or have an office manager authorize a supply order.
But with the messaging app Kik, users are much younger, and tend not to have any purchasing power. As such, Kip’s chatbot highlights the wish-list function, which users can fill out for their parents.
"It might be the same technology, but . . . we’ll highlight different sets of features," says Rachel Law, Kip’s cofounder and CEO.
Some chatbots, like Kip, are collaborative by nature. And in those cases, requiring all users to work with a single messaging service would be a major limitation.
Beyond group shopping bots like Kip, Law points to gaming as one example. A multiplayer game, played via text, might not be as popular if it’s confined to one platform. "You’d be limiting yourself to one group of players, as opposed to having players on Facebook, having players on Line, and having players on Kik," Law says.
The same is true, she adds, with bots that involve scheduling. Requiring everyone to use Skype, for instance, would be a poor strategy for a chatbot that’s trying to coordinate meetings with multiple people. "You need it to be cross-platform, otherwise it won’t work, because you’re limiting your user base to one group of users," Law says.
There may even be some scenarios where a single user wants to interact with a chatbot in different apps. That’s one reason Mosaic has supported Facebook, SMS, Slack, and Alexa.
"There are a lot of differences between platforms in terms of chatbots—their form factors, their interaction, their power varies a lot," Mosaic’s Liu says. "But from a customer’s perspective, they just want to access the most convenient entrance at their most convenient moment."
Still, all this work creating chatbots across different messaging platforms does introduce some unique headaches. As Law points out, all of the major chatbot platforms are constantly adding new features for developers to take advantage of. And with so many platforms to deal with, making sure they’re all running properly can be a hassle.
For that issue, Kip has come up with a novel solution: Every morning, a bot runs a quick check on every platform Kip supports, asking if each respective bot is alive or dead.
"We made a bot," Law says, "for our bots."