With Facebook's recent announcement of support for chat bots at its F8 developer conference, the latest buzz is about the opportunities this presents for richer dialogue between consumers and brands. We can now engage in chatter with various brands via bots, as well as our friends (or maybe even instead of our friends?) This has all sparked debate about the potential demise of apps as messaging apps become more and more like service platforms.

To understand the evolution of messaging, we'd probably want to start back in the early 90s when the first internet-based chat services became popular among the technically savvy. We may not all remember Internet Relay Chat (IRC) chat rooms, but a quick Google image search will give you the general idea! This soon evolved into the first dedicated messaging applications on PC, the once ubiquitous MSN, Yahoo and AOL Messenger, which quickly became a key part of the PC web. Now, with the growth in smartphone ownership we have seen an explosion in the number of chat apps, and while not all of them will survive, a surprising number will thrive based on establishing a clear focus on a particular market segment. Chat apps are now a predominantly mobile phenomenon, catering to an inevitably constant and always-on audience. A key part of the digital ecosystem…and our lives.


To go further, we also need to consider the evolution of human-computer interaction. Back in the IRC days, most of the interaction was based on command-line interactions. One needed to know a specific set of commands: users could join ‘channels’ and interact by sending commands, prefixing them with a ‘/’ which sent a message to the server to carry out a function - KICK…BAN…ADMIN etc. In the PC Web era, we interacted with most of our software via pretty (at the time!) graphical user interfaces that felt much more user friendly and intuitive. As we moved to mobile, the discussion changed from Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) to User Experience (UX) with a focus on overall usability in the design of interaction flows. Now, recently, we have seen the first steps with textual and verbal conversational interaction with applications.

Interestingly, the evolution of Human-Computer Interaction has almost come full circle: from structured, formal command line interaction to unstructured, conversational command line interaction. It is this latter form of interaction that, in the context of messaging apps, presents so many interesting opportunities. These technologies are allowing brands to replicate in a more scalable, and maybe richer way, a form of interaction that is intuitive and more natural i.e. conversing with "someone" about one’s needs. They can offer a mixture of one-to-one customer service and more personalized content to the more engaged, "always on" audience. As an elderly neighbor of mine recently commented when I was explaining some of this: "That'll be great, it'll be like being back in the 1950s!" So...full circle?


As for the question of the day: will bots on messaging platforms kill the app economy? Conversational interaction with bots via a messaging platform will open up new dimensions for interacting with a range of services, but it will be exactly that: a new dimension. Not the only dimension. The first challenge will be to understand what services can best be delivered or enriched by taking this approach and, following that, we'll see a shift in how our interactions via other channels adapts to complement and, in some cases, compensate.

The proliferation of mobile has allowed for depth of engagement and specialization; dating, work, retail and gaming are a few of the key categories where we see immediate impact. Gaming bots and chat games – multiplayer games that can be played directly in a group chat – for example will provide a whole new gaming experience and may well become the new mobile game apps that are played within a messaging app. The evolution will continue…

This is a StepFeed Community post, written by a guest contributor. Tim Rea is the CEO of Palringo, a social platform to chat and play games with people. If you’re interested in contributing to the StepFeed Community, please contact hello@stepfeed.com.