With Business Chat, Apple says 🖕 to WeChat and Facebook

Messaging Barbarians at the Gate

Have you rode the subway recently? Next time you do, take a moment to look over at what your fellow passengers are doing on their phones. If you’re in North America or most of Europe, chances are you’ll see a familiar Facebook blue header on the top few pixels of most mobile phone screens. In China, you may notice the omnipresent black navigation bar of WeChat, that region’s dominant app.
People around the world are spending more time messaging one another than any other activity online. With the attention of so many people captivated by these applications — businesses and developers are doing everything they can to bring their apps & services to messaging platforms. Nowhere is this more prevalent than China, where you can use the WeChat app on your phone to scan a QR code, order a Didi (the Chinese Uber) cab, chat with your friends en route, and order dinner through a conversational UI. 
With more and more businesses choosing to deploy their services on messaging apps instead of directly on the app store, Apple is beginning to find itself cut out from the hundreds of daily interactions people have with the world through their mobile device. If this trend were not addressed, Apple would go from being the company that runs your digital life to merely the company that sells you a pretty snazzy phone.
Clearly, Apple wasn’t going to let this slide. Today at WWDC, Apple gave an early demo of its new “Apple Business Chat” product.

What is business chat?

Apple Business Chat is a platform that allows businesses to be discovered across iOS so that their customers and prospects can communicate with them over the Messages app that’s installed across more than a billion active iOS devices globally.

This functionality will be available starting sometime next year and enabled on all devices with iOS 11. Businesses that want to communicate with their customers over this channel can use a variety of helpdesk tools that they’ve already integrated into their operations. 
 The platform supports a number of really awesome features:

  • Businesses can request payments for goods and services via Apple Pay, without the user having to enter in their payment details directly.
  • A variety of rich message types including:
  • Time pickers that make appointment scheduling easy
  • List pickers for selecting from menus
  • Intelligent quick reply buttons that provide smart, default answers to questions like “What’s your phone number?” or “What’s your address?”

On their own, none of these features are that significant. They’re just cute and handy UI elements. What makes Apple Business Chat disruptive is that it looks like Apple’s used the reach of their platform to solve the discoverability problem for business messaging.

Discoverability : The Missing link for businesses

Despite all the time we spend on messaging apps in the western world, most of us still aren’t inclined to use the “Search” function on the messaging app to find businesses to interact with when we have a question. 
Today you turn to Safari to search for businesses, product or services. You turn to Apple Maps to find your way to a restaurant, to find a dry cleaner in your area, or the closest salon. You use your phone’s built-in search feature, Spotlight, to look up past communications and notes.
Apple Business Chat is integrated into each of these places. Any search result can include a “Message” button that instantly kicks off a conversation with that business. With this kind of discoverability, it will become imperative for every business to offer some kind of support over messaging, just as its essential for almost every business to be reachable by phone today. Business owners, particularly local businesses, simply won’t want to be left out of these results when their competitors are included in them.
In a nod to their popularity in Asia, Apple’s also included QR code support directly into iOS 11 so that physical spaces can feature codes that when scanned, lead the user to engage with a business over messaging. With the prevalence of QR Codes in Asia (seriously, they are everywhere), users will no longer have to dive into apps like WeChat or Messenger to scan codes and instead can do so from within any app on the operating system. Scottie, the product manager at Apple who presented the business chat demo during today’s announcement, made sure to take a jab at WeChat when he demonstrated this feature. 
 Apple has clearly been thinking about how to getting into the ring for quite some time.

The one thing that wasn’t announced at WWDC

When Facebook opened up its Messenger platform for businesses in 2016, Zuckerberg took the stage to tout the power of bots. Conversational, artificially intelligent robots were to be the next wave of human/computer interaction capable of selling makeup, playing games, running influencer marketing campaigns and more.
14 months later, the best bot experiences on the planet are still scripted and clunky, and despite hundreds of thousands of dollars being invested into PoCs by many of the major brands, we’ve yet to see a “killer bot” emerge. 
Apple was smart to focus its announcement of Business Chat not on the promise of the bot, but on the promise of a better experience to the user. Nothing in Apple’s API technically prevents a robot from responding to a user. However, Apple was very clear to insist that the introduction of messaging was to provide a better experience to a businesses customers and prospects than could be obtained over traditional communication channels like phone and email. 
As someone who’s tremendously excited about the future of bots and the rise of conversational interfaces, I couldn’t agree more with this approach. A clear focus on the customer experience, and not the whiz-bang of sexy natural language processing and clever conversational copywriting, will be key to creating value for businesses around the world.

Keeping Apps Relevant in a Messaging World

With the rise of messaging apps, many people (including me!) predicted the death of apps as we know them. Today’s announcement doesn’t refute this entirely but it does change the nature of what apps can be, and potentially makes them more powerful than they ever have before.
 Unlike other messaging platforms that provide a few fixed rich message types, Apple Business Chat messages can be completely re-implemented by app developers. That means that app developers can develop custom messages that provide entire user interfaces right in the message bubble.
 At first glance, this might seem a little useless. However, think about the security requirements of banks, healthcare providers and other enterprise applications. These high security applications can now interact over messaging and still provide secure windows that allow users to transact, consult balances and more. 
 This is incredibly powerful — the next generation of mobile apps won’t be designed to hook you in and keep you captive in a mobile user interface. Instead, they’ll present the information you care about, in a secure, attractive way, at exactly the right time by leveraging the context of your current conversation.

Why I’m so excited

When I co-founded Smooch.io, I did so with the intention of fundamentally transforming the way that businesses and technology interacted with humans around the world. Messaging is the medium we have chosen to affect this change as we believe that it provides the most convenient and engaging way for humans to interact.
Today, Apple showed the world how it solves problems that have kept the world from using this medium to interact with business. Over the next year, messaging will continue to grow, and when Apple business chat hits our iPhones and iPads, it will absolutely explode. This is an incredible validation, and Smooch will ensure that your software can work seamlessly across all of today’s current messaging platforms as well as all of tomorrow’s (including Apple Business Chat).