At Kik, we’ve been thinking about the coming bot revolution for a long time. We first launched a basic bot platform a year and a half ago, and millions of users have been chatting with Kik bots ever since. Other messengers, such as Telegram and Slack, have been doing their own work with bots. Now, Facebook is rumored to be announcing its own bot platform for Messenger at f8 on April 12.
It’s no longer a question of if bots are coming, but how.
Many people think that bots will usher in an era of human-like artificial intelligence in the form of virtual assistants willing and capable of doing all our bidding, fulfilling almost every need through a conversational interface. Familiar examples are Magic, Operator, and Facebook’s ‘M’, all of which try to offer comprehensive “get things done” services through a combination of artificial intelligence and human agents. However, while we find this idea interesting, we aren’t so sure it’s the best way forward.
When you look at the great platforms of the past, you see that they’ve always enabled a type of behavior that wasn’t possible before they came along. Personal computers, for example, allowed you to take computing home for the first time ever. For the first time ever, the web let you access information from anywhere in the world. For the first time ever, mobile made connected computing constantly available.
So what will bots let you do that the PC, the web, and mobile never let you do before?
It isn’t talking to an assistant. That has been possible via instant messaging, email, and texting for years. In fact, both Magic and Operator offer their services over text today. And while AI might allow those services to get cheaper and faster over time, the experience will never really change. You’ll just be talking to a person.
So if not AI, then what? What will bots let you do that was never possible before?
We think the answer is actually quite simple: For the first time ever, bots will let you instantly interact with the world around you. This is best illustrated through something that I experienced recently.
During last year’s baseball playoffs, I went to a Blue Jays game at the Rogers Centre. I was running late, so I went straight to my seat to catch as much of the game as I could. But when I got there, I realized I was the only one of my friends without a beer. So, with no beer guy in sight, I turned back to go get a beer. After 10 minutes of waiting in line, I finally got back to my seat. I had missed two home runs.
But good news! In the future, this will never have to happen again. The stadium is developing an app that will let you order from your seat. So next time, I won’t have to miss a beat — I’ll just order through the app. It will be great. Or will it?
Imagine I had sat down and found that there was a sticker on the back of the chair in front of me that said, “Want a beer? Download our app!” Sounds great! I’d unlock my phone, go to the App Store, search for the app, put in my password, wait for it to download, create an account, enter my credit card details, figure out where in the app I actually order from, figure out how to input how many beers I want and of what type, enter my seat number, and then finally my beer would be on its way.
Actually, I would have been better off just waiting in line.
And yet there are so many of these types of apps: apps to order train tickets at stations; apps to order food at restaurants; and apps to order movie tickets at theatres. Everyone wants you to just “download our app!” And yet, after spending millions of dollars developing them, how many people actually use them? My guess: not a lot.
But imagine the stadium one more time, except now instead of spending millions to develop an app, the stadium had spent thousands to develop a simple, text-based bot. I’d sit down and see a similar sticker: “Want a beer? Chat with us!” with a chat code beside it. I’d unlock my phone, open my chat app, and scan the code. Instantly, I’d be chatting with the stadium bot, and it’d ask me how many beers I wanted: “1, 2, 3, or 4.” It’d ask me what type: “Bud, Coors, or Corona.” And then it’d ask me how I wanted to pay: Credit card already on file (**** 0345), or a new card.
Chat app > Scan > 2 > Bud > **** 0345. Done.
This is an instant interaction, and it is something that only becomes possible with bots. There’s no new app to download, no new account to create, and, perhaps most importantly, no new user interface to learn. You just scan and chat.
I hear you asking: “Isn’t this just like QR codes?” Not really. People in the West aren’t in the habit of scanning QR codes because, in almost every case, the experience sucks. Scan a QR code and you’ll get sent to a slow-loading website with a visual interface that you’ll likely have to learn from scratch. Scan a chat code, and you get taken instantly to a familiar conversational interface. Scanning the code is the same, but everything else is different.
This all might seem too simple. But to us, that’s the beauty of bots. They can reduce friction to as close to zero as computing allows. A Forbes reporter recently described using Kik to scan a code on the wall at a restaurant in Waterloo, Kik’s hometown. The scan brought up a bot, which asked her what she wanted to order. She asked for a Diet Coke, and minutes later it was brought to her table. Describing the experience, she said:
It felt a bit like the first time I tapped a button and an Uber car appeared three minutes later–the magic of what many in the tech industry call online-to-offline, the ability to order physical products or services from an app. Except now you don’t even need a new app–you can just chat your way to a richer life.
Among other integrations, we also recently tested these scan bots with a major fast food restaurant chain (which we can’t name at this point). The goal was to quickly get a feel for what ordering from the table might be like, so to keep integration simple we asked people to scan and chat to fill out a survey and get cookies delivered. Although it was just a typical day at this restaurant, more than 250 people completed the survey through Kik that day. In normal circumstances, the restaurant would struggle to get even a single response.
How many people would have completed that survey if they had used an app instead of a bot in a chat app they already had? My guess is none. And then no one would get any cookies.
To be clear, this is just the beginning of the bots era, and there are many developments to come. The leaders in this space — Kik, WeChat, Line, Facebook, Slack, and Telegram — all have their own ideas about how this is all going to play out. But one thing I think we can all agree on is that chat is going to be the world’s next great operating system: a Bot OS (or, as we like to call it, BOS).
These developments open up new and giant opportunities for consumers, developers, and businesses. Chat apps will come to be thought of as the new browsers; bots will be the new websites. This is the beginning of a new internet.