AI and the App Store Model

It’s a Friday night, five years from now. You’re feeling a little peckish, so you raise your voice and call on your AI of choice. “Hey Viv,” you say (or Alexa or Google Assistant or SarahPalin), “order me the cheapest large pepperoni pizza you can find.” “No problem,” its cheery, likely female voice replies. “It’ll be here in twelve minutes.”

Who did you just order pizza from? What restaurant is delivering — and what app was used to find it?

There are a hundred different ways you could order a large pepperoni pizza on your smartphone. You could go straight to the source and find a restaurant with its own app, to order direct (think Domino’s); use one of the hundred versions of Just Eat to get delivery from any participating restaurant; or even fire up Chowdy to get food directly from a chef. But as users become more and more likely to interact with services through the intermediary of a personal AI assistant (PAIA), that choice is taken out of their hands.

So who makes the decision instead of you?

We’ve written before about the prevalence of invisible apps; already in existence today, they are becoming more and more popular as chatbots begin to reign supreme. They’re hiding on Facebook messenger, running in the background of your smartphone, and interacting with your browser. But in a world where your AI decides which app to use — how will the app store model adjust?

Two things may decide the answer to that question: just how invisible our apps become, and how married we are to our personal assistants (pun not intended; please don’t marry your AI).

So how invisible are most invisible apps?

Right now, I can head over to Facebook messenger and a chatbot will recommend a thousand shades of lipstick to buy (not well, but it will). While the user experience is left mostly up to Facebook (ModiFace is in charge of how badly — I mean how well — the chabot communicates), the experience is still very much branded. I put ModiFace into a conversation like I would with any other friend, and every time we talk back and forth, its name and logo appear, reminding me who I’m dealing with. While this is technically considered an invisible app, it’s so named because I didn’t have to download it.

That said, I did need to seek it out. Without an app store I wouldn’t know it existed, or whether it was highly rated. There’s no system (currently) for scanning which apps have Facebook interfaces, and even if there were, it would likely have a rating and sorting system so similar to the app store that it would be fundamentally identical. In the case of apps like ModiFace, then, it seems likely that the app store will stick around as a model, allowing users to decide for themselves which apps they use and which ones they never, ever use again. (Can you tell which way I’m leaning?)

So what about those personal assistants? In the opening example, the user had no say on which app the PAIA selected — that interaction was completely invisible. An app still needs to exist, but its selection is made without human input.

In this case which apps succeed and which fail would be decided not by common agreement (like the app store), but by corporate design. Large companies like Google and Amazon might have entire divisions that run like startups of today, proposing and testing apps to see which are popular enough to become a full-fledged part of the main program. Independent apps would have an incredibly hard time finding purchase, since their only option would be to spread word-of-mouth so that a user could specifically request that their PAIA use that app (“Viv, order pizza from Five-Minutes-Or-Free”). In a world like this, brand narrows to mega corporations — each in a walled gardens from which the user can never escape.

Enjoy the app store while it lasts. Cast your votes now — because in the near future, you may not have any.

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written by Wren Handman for