THE REAL REASON WHY BOTS ARE COMING: CHINA
But bots aren't new, and they've actually been around for a while now. A bot is simply a software app that runs automated tasks over the Internet. For example, Google uses bots (also known as the Googlebot) to crawl through billions of websites to add to Google's search index.
What Microsoft and Facebook are going on about are a specific kind of bot, a chatbot, which simulates conversations to help you get things done inside messaging apps. A ‘conversational user interface,' if you like. More Jarvis from the movie Iron Man, less Windows.
For example, instead of ordering a pizza through a website, you could message the restaurant and order something through a backand-forth conversation with a bot. A more advanced bot can become a single-task virtual assistant, one could help you schedule a meeting, for example, by having its own conversations with your calendar app and the other parties for you. Nobody knows for sure if bots will really be the next big thing. But there's one country where bots — and messaging — are having great success. And it's only the country with the most number of citizens in the world.
In China, messaging apps have expanded to become much more than just a place to chat. WeChat users in China can use the app to make hotel reservations, order food, buy movie tickets, and shop.
At the beginning, companies staffed their WeChat channels with humans to make the sale. Now, many are being replaced with chatbots. That's a big market for these bots, when you consider that WeChat has one billion active users, with more than 20 million official accounts by businesses or organizations, and in 2015 was valued by HSBC at US$83.6 billion.
This is what Facebook hopes its developers will turn Messenger into, by releasing the Messenger Platform with open APIs. The company imagines a future where you can order flowers, ask about the weather and book hotels through ‘talking' with a chatbot on Messenger.
Qi Lu, Executive Vice President of Microsoft's Applications and Services Group, told that he became serious about bots during a visit to China, where he watched how students and customers used their smartphones. It was Lu who convinced Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella, of bots' strategic potential.
If the popularity of bots for the rest of the world remains an open question, China, at least, has become a convincing proof of concept. Messaging is the next big platform war, and whoever owns that platform — and the tools to build the bots that make the sales — can stand to reap big profits in the future to come. JUNE 2016 | HWM 137