Bot stores ≠ App stores

And why bot developers might burn their fingers.

Based on our learnings from building — your personal bot / identity platform!

While the appeal of chat bots and conversational commerce is amazing, I’m a highly skeptical about their future in bot stores built on existing messaging platforms such as Messenger, Kik, Telegram, Slack etc. even after taking into account the massive infrastructure, reach and distribution they offer to developers.

Ever since the bot craze started last year the industry has created thousands of bots — mostly meaningless and glorified versions of IVR systems — across various messaging platforms. From booking flights to checking weather we have bots for almost every use case. Even POTUS has a bot now!

As per recent estimates there are 11,000 bots on Messenger and 20,000 bots on Kik.

You can understand why all existing platforms are pushing aggressively on bots as they want to win the race to become the next app store equivalent. However, are these platforms really sold on the potential of bots? Do they really understand and have put real thought behind what bot stores should look like? Are they providing right support and tools to the developer community?

Source: Mashable

Or it’s really driven by the PR folks’ desire to showcase themselves favorably in the eyes of market and developer community. It’s no surprise that Telegram, Kik and Messenger came out with their bot stores in a close span of each other so as not to allow anyone to become the de facto leader. Also noticed by the launch of similar features recently from Facebook (quick replies) and Slack (buttons).

I’m not saying things won’t improve generally in the bot ecosystem or messaging platforms but it’s good to take a step back and be aware of the reasons why developers might burn their fingers if they look at bot stores in the same light as the app stores.

First of all, discovery of bots on any messaging platform is very limited right now. There’s hardly any organic way for developers to get in front of massive audiences on bot stores. This was the single most important pain point raised by the bot developers at a recent bot event. The best reply I heard from a platform lead was “we don’t know when, so far we’re relying on developers themselves to leverage their existing audience” which defeats the single most important purpose why developers would want to develop their bots on existing platforms.

Bots offer great promise but the very problem they intend to solve i.e. a universal conversation flow comes into question if developers are banking on individual messaging platforms. For example getting a bot to understand user preferences, developers would need access to personal data from FB, Slack, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. however it’s very unlikely for each one of these platforms to make their data available to another competitor. For reference look at how much compatibility iOS and Android offer and imagine that for 5–6 leading messaging platforms. It can get dirty soon!

Even if data was available easily across platforms, there’s a great degree of effort required in maintaining our apps. Think about the effort it takes to maintain apps across two leading app platforms, Apple and Google. With multiple messaging platforms having their own bot kits & stores, approval processes and stringent requirements — even with help from several bot deployment platforms — it will soon become a huge pain to manage your bots across platforms.

In terms of control, unlike app stores where developers have access to native systems to define their app’s experience, in bot stores developers are left at the mercy of the messaging platforms to define the interface and wait for any desperately needed features to move through the pipeline. This can lead to bot developers really not able to control the end to end experience of their users who will soon start churning out.

Moreover Apple and Google provided robust payment infrastructure to the developers allowing them to create solid paid, freemium or ad-supported business models. In case of bot stores no one currently provides any kind of sophisticated payment system to allow bot developers to start thinking about not just novelty of bots but also how to shape that into a solid revenue generating business.

Developing and deploying a bot is relatively easy compared to building a native app on iOS or Android. This will soon lead to proliferation of bots and a crowded space for developers — much more than what we face with apps right now. In order to stand out developers will start falling into the trap of these platforms for distribution via paid in-bot ads or featured listings in the stores making it more and more expensive to reach out to their target audience.

I believe that bot developers can save themselves from pain later by using existing platforms as test beds for their initial bot experiences but then carefully evaluating if it makes sense for them to go independent of the existing platforms to develop their unique bots and businesses.

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