To most people, Messaging is an “app” — an application on their mobile phone that they use to communicate with friends and family. But, Messaging is becoming a ‘platform’ upon which, in the future, applications will be built.
(Note, in this article, I’m abstracting all of the common applications that send/receive conversational text messages between users under the umbrella of “Messaging”. This includes Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, iMessage, Gchat, Kik, Snapchat, WeChat, Slack, etc and of course the ubiquitous common denominator, SMS. Some use the term “Chat” as a synonym for Messaging.)
As a founder of Centricient, a company that is re-inventing Customer Service with Messaging, I spend a lot of time watching and thinking about the world of Messaging — you could say I’m watching the Chat chatter! :-)
The Ubiquity of Messaging — Messaging Matters!
Before diving headlong into my thoughts about why Messaging as a Platform is the Next Big Thing, let me first prove why Messaging Matters.
It’s a safe bet that since you’re reading this post on Medium you’re a tech savvy type that regularly uses 2–3 different Messaging apps. In fact, probably everyone you know including your friends, parents, siblings, children and even grandparents communicate with Messaging.
You’re not alone. And it’s not just tech savvy types using Messaging, it’s EVERYONE!! WhatsApp is used by one-seventh of the world’s population! Facebook Messenger has 800M monthly average users. WeChat follows closely with 650M. And then there’s iMessage and GChat with roughly another 400M each. Finally, let’s not forget SMS on all of the world’s 2.6B smartphones.
For me and most everyone one that I know, Messaging is preferred to a phone call. Phone calls are synchronous. Participants must limit other tasks so that they can focus on listening. There is no replay in a phone call. In today’s fast paced, multi-tasking world there is no time for phone calls!
As an app, Messaging wins! Game over!!
But, Messaging as a Platform?
Conversational discourse is the foundation of human interaction. It makes sense then, that when computers were created, humans wanted to interact with the computers in the same way. Unfortunately, until recently (and perhaps not even quite yet), the input capabilities of computers were not capable of true conversational discourse. This led engineers to simulate discourse through input forms or queries that were responded to by the computer program. However, since conversational discourse is the foundational paradigm of most software applications, it follows then, that most applications can be developed on Messaging.
Form Input as a Messaging Application
Search/Inquiry as a Messaging Application
While the concept of developing applications on Messaging isn’t undiscovered, it is nascent but gaining momentum fast. And though, terminology isn’t entirely consistent, there is a lot of thinking and discussion going on about the breakthrough potential of Messaging as a Platform (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Messaging has even gone as mainstream as the WSJ (1, 2).
From a Messaging as a Platform perspective, it’s really immaterial whether it’s AI or human intelligence engaged on the other side of the conversation. Since the interface to the Messaging backend is just messages, the Platform doesn’t care.
To help understand how I think about this new world order of Messaging, let me share with you my ontology:
Messaging — the broad category of software applications that send/receive messages between users. Messaging applications are primarily mobile. Some refer to Messaging as “Chat”.
Messaging System — a particular implementation of Messaging. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and SMS are all examples of Messaging Systems.
Messaging App — an application used by a Messaging System as the UI for users to send/receive messages via the system. The Facebook Messenger app in the App Store is an example of a Messaging App.
Messaging as a Platform (MaaP) —the evolution of Messaging Systems from closed systems in which messages can originate and terminate only in the system’s Messaging App to a ‘platform’ upon which others can build applications that send and receive messages. Messaging as a Platform should include all the ‘platform features’ that application developers expect from platforms such as API’s/frameworks and ecosystem. Although many Messaging Systems have signaled that they are moving towards becoming Messaging Platforms (e.g. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Kik) in my opinion, only SMS and WeChat have currently reached MaaP status.
MaaP App — An application that is built upon Messaging as a Platform to implement one side of a conversation in a Messaging System. The intelligence behind a MaaP App could be driven by AI, human intelligence or a combination of both. Some have used the term ‘chatbot’ for an AI powered MaaP App. To me, chatbot, conjures an image of mindless, low quality interactions and undersells the potential of an AI powered MaaP App.
Given the ubiquity of Messaging that we’ve already discussed (i.e. number of users and time spent in Messaging), clearly there is an incredible opportunity for MaaP Apps. But what types of apps are most likely? eCommerce (aka Conversational Commerce) is often the first suggestion. However, it is my belief that Customer Service has incredible potential.
Advantages of MaaP Apps
As compared to developing a mobile or web app, MaaP Apps have a number of fundamental advantages that will speed development and also potential success of the app.
- Immediate & Frequent Deployment — With a MaaP App, there is no App Store approval process and delay. Since you are deploying in an environment you control, you can deploy at the speed that you develop.
- Frictionless Adoption — The incredible proliferation of (useless) apps has soured mobile users on apps. Simply put, users don’t install many apps anymore. Clutter, battery life and privacy are a few of many reasons not to install an app. So, even if you’ve got a killer idea, your idea likely won’t make it to users because they won’t install your app. With a MaaP App, there is no app to install, no friction to try your killer idea. Your interface is the app that users are already used to using more than any other.
- Native Image & Video — The ability to easily take and send images and video is a core part of every Messaging user’s experience. Even the least technical users (i.e. your grandparents) are already multimedia messaging savvy and can provide visual input to MaaP Apps.
There’s also a responsibility that comes with building a MaaP App, since a poorly behaved app could annoy a user with unwanted messages, potentially leading to the user abandoning that Messaging Platform.
The Role of MaaP Apps
Just like pictures and diagrams augment spoken text, MaaP Apps aren’t appropriate to replace all applications. But, I believe we’ll see MaaP Apps very quickly become the preferred interface for less complex interactions that are easily described in text and for which contextual information is available so that the interaction can be terse:
“What is tomorrow’s weather forecast?”
“I want to return the sweater that just came”
And over time, more complex interactions will be handled in MaaP Apps:
“I’m looking for a eyeglass frames that are dark, kinda round, not too big”
“My router crashed. Here’s a pic of the error message”
AI — Nice, but not Required
Finally, I want to make sure that reader’s don’t leave with the perception that AI is necessary to make MaaP Apps. Everything I’ve described doesn’t require AI. Humans can be on the other side of the interaction. Granted, AI may make Messaging as a Platform more valuable by increasing the efficiency/cost of applications, but the success of Messaging as a Platform is not dependent upon AI.
The innovation of Messaging as a Platform is that it is a new way to build applications offering users a more comfortable and efficient way to interact with applications. And developers will be able to innovate and develop applications faster that will reach more users.