Why developers should treat bots like browser extensions

This post was inspired by this one; “Conversational interfaces, beyond the hype”. Thank you Paul for inviting me to comment. I don’t blog much these days. But I do remember the correct etiquette for linking.

Theres’s a lot of chatter about bots and how developers should perceive them — and whether they add value to end users or not. And there’s some discussion around what a bot is and why we use the term “bot”.

I believe we can draw similarities between bots and browser extensions from a developer ecosystem perspective.

Websites add value to the wellbeing of the Web. And apps add value to mobile devices and the wider mobile ecosystem. But for the most part, apps and websites work in silo.

Browser extensions and add-ons do two things:

  1. They offer a unique utility and
  2. They improve the actual utility offered by browsers — they can and should improve the overall browser experience.

No specific website or mobile app is going to improve my overall experience of the web, a browser, a mobile device, or a mobile OS.

Not only do bots that are built for Slack, HipChat, Skype, Messenger, iMessage et al, add a specific utility (or at least should), they improve the overall experience of those services in the same way extensions bring added value to browsers.

Browser extensions and add-ons are what made Firefox successful, taking huge market share away from the incumbent Internet Explorer. If it wasn’t for third-party developers, I don’t think Firefox would have gained a fraction of the traction, turning it into a $300M foundation in a short few years.

Like browser vendors, messaging platforms are starting to see the value that third-party developers bring to their platforms. Platforms that show the most love to developers and their bots, are the ones more likely to grow more quickly.

Using the term “bot” is ok for me. We should stick to it if only to make sure we all talk about the same thing. If someone doesn’t know what chat bot is, they’re certainly going to frown when you mention a term like “conversational… zzz”.

I believe we’re using the term bot because of Slack. Slack only supported command lines that were techie/developer focused. And bots understand commands.

We didn’t refer to HipChat’s add-ons/integrations as bots because they didn’t support commands. They bypassed that phase and went straight to supporting buttons. When Slack started to get traction HipChat thought it would be a good idea to talk about bots and introduce command lines as people weren’t talking about integrations nearly as much as bots. Meanwhile while HipChat introduces the concept of command lines and bots, Slack introduced buttons and apps/integrations.

Let’s not try to invent new terminology if it means having to educate an already confused audience. For me, a bot is a piece of software that you add to a messaging platform. That bot may or may not have AI. Bots understand and respond to commands — it could be a human on the other end responding to a user. Integrations are also pieces of software but they do things when a user does something, or hits a button — there are no commands.

If you like this article and feel it could help to stimulate some debate, please share it :)

A little more context based on my background:

I was part of the team that helped to launch AIM in 1997 while working at AOL as the first Technical Accounts Manager and International Beta Coordinator hired outside the US. I managed all internal testing in the UK and the beta program for AIM worldwide. I was an early advocate for Firefox and hosted the biggest Firefox birthday parties in the world on behalf of Mozilla.

I was one of the seven original founders of the W3C Mobile Web Initiative in 2005. I founded my first startup in 2003 — a mobile testing company which was the first to become an Associate Member of the GSMA. It was the first company to manage the testing of MMS picture messaging in Europe. I helped to successful launch two developer community platforms for Vodafone and Telefonica.

So, chat, messaging, mobile, developer ecosystems and web browsing are areas of great interest to me — all of which are relevant to this post. It doesn’t mean I’m right. It just means that I have a small foundation upon which to form an opinion.

p.s. if you don’t spot any typos you’ll know I’ve hired a ghost writer.

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