The internet brought the world together, letting you talk to people on the other side of the planet without barriers — and many thought that as a result, perhaps online culture might eventually become one new homogenous world culture.
Instead, with apps, the opposite has happened and the app market is more diverse than ever before — with different regions of the world flourishing within their own ecosystems.
The smartphone has exploded in popularity beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, which is shaping the world in new ways — and ironically, changing how we have conversations.
Benedict Evans, a partner at the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, published a slideshow called ‘Mobile is eating the world’ full of statistics that show just how staggering the impact is on the world.
Smartphones are now overwhelmingly the most popular device people own, and are even more popular for interacting with the internet as well as other people.
Looking at Facebook’s usage statistics paints a staggering picture of the world rapidly switching to a mobile-only diet. The company announced in early November that over 1 billion of its customers now interact with the service only via their phones, and don’t log in on desktop at all.
As Facebook has become a global behemoth, with more than 1 billion active mobile customers, it’s easy to forget that it’s not the go-to platform for every person in every country. Sure, almost everyone you know might have a Facebook profile, but where they actually spend their time is something else altogether.
Each market tends to use its own messaging service, and to prefer some unique ways of communicating. In Asia, for example, the use of paid stickers is extremely common, generating app makers millions of dollars every year.
Perhaps the most unique market in the world; unlike the US and Europe, Asia tends to prefer messaging apps that can, quite literally, help you get anything in your day done.
LINE, Japan’s most popular mobile app lets customers send each other messages, but within the app you’re able to play games, do your grocery shopping and even hail a cab. Even more incredible is that LINE makes more than $270 million every year from selling stickers to its customers; a feat no Western app company has managed to pull off yet.
The company has also developed a rich app constellation within Apple’s own platform that works with the core LINE app, allowing third-party developers to build ‘LINE-branded’ apps that are distributed through the main service.
WeChat in China is a similar play — it’s considered the gateway to all services in the country and has eventually grown to encompass everything from movie tickets, to transport (air, rail, taxi), money transfer, and more.
It uses an ‘app within an app’ model which means thousands of lightweight apps can live within the core service, making it more like a browser that allows access to ‘certified’ apps more than anything else.
According to Andreessen Horowitz, that’s changing the way apps and services are even built in China:
“Developing official WeChat accounts has become so popular in China that new startups sometimes test their version 1.0 product on WeChat’s platform before dedicating resources to building and marketing a standalone native app”
China was one of the first markets to widely use what we know as chat bots today, with almost every mainstream brand in the country sporting ‘official accounts’ on services for interacting with customers.
Every company from the Dutch airline KLM to your local corner cafe uses WeChat and you’re able to message businesses directly, as if they were a friend. Some of the experience is automated, but much of it is actually handled by humans behind the scenes.
The real key to this success, however, is that WeChat and LINE are deeply embedded into the countries’ payment systems, and everyone that uses these services has a payment method linked to their account for either buying stickers or interacting with an app embedded within the service, opening up the platform for almost any e-commerce activity.
When a customer comes in and asks a question, you can’t just give them a plain answer — you could actually make a sale immediately right in that thread.
Both of these services have seen limited success outside of Asia, and even their respective countries, due to both the language barrier and the difficulty of offering the breadth of services overseas.
It’s possible to download and use both apps in the United States, but they offer little more than the core messaging service — which misses the point.
US and Europe
The United States is a whole different world for apps, particularly due to cultural differences and ownership over ecosystems that have prevented any clear monopoly.
For example, Facebook Messenger is the most popular messaging service in the US, but the company has struggled to open up its ecosystem. It was only in late 2015 that Facebook opened up Messenger to brands and bots, and even then concerns were widespread about what that could mean:
“Let’s imagine that Everlane message you got. You’re not thinking of Everlane at all. You’re talking to your friends. That means Everlane is interrupting you in some senses.”
In Asia, almost everyone has businesses on their contact list and them sending messages isn’t considered “interrupting” but rather a fact of life. In the US, however, it’s considered pushy and annoying.
Indeed, the ecosystem wars are playing out very differently in the US.
Facebook’s moves into this area were considered copying WeChat at the time, and rightfully so: the company wants to become an e-commerce powerhouse just like its Asian counterparts, but has stumbled in making it popular.
Last year the company opened up Messenger for Business, in a much similar way to how WeChat’s ecosystem works. Businesses can now make chat accounts that can talk directly with customers, with the added option of custom buttons for actions right inside the conversation.
One interesting experiment the company has been quietly working away on is a chatbot called ‘M’ which is part-AI and part-human assistance. You can ask ‘M’ anything and it’ll go out of its way to help — need movie tickets for tonight? You got it. Want someone to pick up your laundry? Facebook will figure that out. It’s an interesting glimpse of a bold new future, but AI isn’t really good enough yet and much of the work is done by humans, which is hard to scale:
“Though the goal is for M to one day be almost fully automated, the service still relies on a team of human supervisors to complete most of its requests. And, until Facebook is able to train its AI to be smart enough minimize human involvement, it simply won’t be able to scale the service to its more than 1 billion users.”
Snapchat, meanwhile, has remained a monolithic single app that’s only added features to its core service rather than breaking them out into smaller apps like WeChat, LINE and even Facebook.
In the last few years it’s added features like the ability to pay your friends with Snapcash directly in the app, a feature for reading the news called Snapchat Discover and paid geo-filter lenses that could easily be compared to stickers.
It’s important to note, however, that Snapchat barely registers on a global level, and is heavily restricted to younger people:
“Only 7% of global internet users are Snapchatting. But the reason this app causes so much discussion is its success in certain mature markets and, crucially, among certain key demographics. Look at teens in the UK/USA — over 40% are using Snapchat.”
This is a key difference between cultures — Asian apps specialize in playing nicely as an ecosystem, and interact with each other on a deep level, but American ecosystems tend to be limited by comparison, preferring to own the end-to-end experience instead.
In the USA a taxi app or a restaurant app will have an embedded map, but in China the map has embedded restaurants and taxis — and lots of other things. Equally, on Yelp you can message friends, but in WeChat you’re already in the messaging app. — Benedict Evans
The tide is changing, however, and Google is taking it to the next level with its fledgling new messaging service Allo, which lets you do all of the tasks described within a single messaging thread.
Allo can tag in an Assistant at any time which is able to perform tasks like looking up dinner choices, then making a reservation at that location. The assistant can’t read the conversation thread, but it can help whenever it’s mentioned, offering a unique paradigm.
Allo, which is still young and doesn’t have a huge active customer base yet, poses a different question altogether than unbundled messaging apps like LINE or WeChat: what if you’re able to collaboratively perform tasks right from the comfort of where you’re already chatting, rather than changing context?
It remains to be seen if this mode will be popular, but it’s looking promising. If Google can open up Assistant to third parties and let people engage with companies in an entirely automated fashion without even leaving the conversation they’re in, it could absolutely change the game — but the clock is ticking.
What does all this mean?
One thing is clear: conversation is the key to reaching people. Providing the option to express a request in a visitor’s own words, rather than just through an interface is more powerful than anyone expected.
Why? Because instead of needing to convince people to download and set-up yet another app, they can just add the bot and literally start doing things without any setup.
Right now, much of those conversations are done by humans, but the beauty of conversational interfaces is that at some point the technology will be good enough for computers to do it instead, and you probably won’t notice at all, as Chris Messina writes;
It’s just that over an increasing period of time, computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling, to the point where the user can’t detect the difference, and will interact with either human agent or computer bot in roughly the same interaction paradigm.
Right now everyone from Facebook to WeChat is still in the learning phase, particularly when it comes to e-commerce, but the opportunity is immense. Given the choice between downloading an app to do a simple task, or just asking in a conversation, people will always choose the latter.
One thing is clear: the popularity of messaging apps has already surpassed that of any other social media app, and the winners will be the ones that take the opportunity now with their audience, reducing the friction to getting what they need done.
This article is a part of the “Do you speak human?” lab — enabled by SPACE10 to explore conversational interfaces and AI.
Make sure you dive into the entire publication.