Will Automated bots kill Smartphone apps?

Android Safety

It’s been six years since Steve Jobs introduced to the world the App Store. Since then, apps have changed the way the average smartphone user accesses content. Today, the $50 billion app industry faces its biggest threat ever. Welcome to the brave new world of bots—software that automates things people do regularly. While Microsoft faced problems when its chatbot Tay resorted to racist comments, Facebook at its annual F8 developer conference announced the arrival of bots to developers via its Messenger app that has 900 million users. This should, at one go, give a shot in the arm to the bot space. However, Facebook has been beaten to the draw by Telegram, Teamchat and Kik, which have already launched bots.

What is a bot and what does it do?

Bots have been there for years. In earlier days, if you were thrown out of a chatroom because what you wrote was abusive, it was because of bots. Nowadays, a bot is a software which automates things that most people do on their own, such as check news, order food, book flights or arrange meetings. They do tasks that are simple and repetitive; at speeds that no human can match. A simple online Q&A which, while appearing to be with a person, will in all likelihood be with a chatbot. Since chatbots reside on the server, they are easier and cheaper to develop. Bots work on any device, irrespective of the operating system. Already there are CNN and Burger King bots that provide news feeds and help you order a burger.

Who all are building bots?

Microsoft has been testing its chatbot Tay. It has also unveiled a new version of Skype that features chatbots. Facebook has launched its bot on Messenger. Most messaging platforms like Kik and Telegram are already there. Kik’s bot shop has tied up with retailers H&M and Sephora. Then there is Botlist, which offers a range of services including news, entertainment, lifestyle and games. The idea behind Botlist is to provide a centralised directory for all the bots that a person needs, almost similar on the lines of Google Play for Android apps today. Kik, with 275 million users, has announced a bot store. Two companies that are a bit slow in the space are Google and Apple. Google is reportedly working on a chatbot that will reside in a mobile messaging product.

Will bots replace apps?

Much of the demand for bots is because people are gradually getting tired of apps. There are multiple reasons. While there are millions of apps on offer, the top few garner almost 80% of the market. These are largely messaging apps like WhatsApp, Line and WeChat. It has been noticed that while people download many apps on their smartphones, they regularly tend to use only a handful. That apart, there is limited memory on smartphones (16GB largely) to download and operate a number of apps.

The advantage that bots have is they are capable of reaching people on platforms they already use, like SMS, chat apps, etc. While bots are not likely to kill apps immediately, they are expected to replace some apps pretty soon. The plus point that Facebook has is that it has huge amounts of data on its 1.6 billion users and the 900 million on Messenger. As a result, it is in a position to create chatbots that can do mundane tasks, like booking tickets or making restaurant reservations. That means you could practically do everything you want to by just being on Facebook Messenger. It also means more space in your smartphone for other things.

Will bots do everything for you?

In the initial phase, expect bots to do the routine, mundane stuff that you would rather get someone to do for you. Now that assistant will reside in your messaging application. It will take some time before more real-time core stuff is handled by bots. The way Microsoft’s chatbot Tay reacted is a classic case study. So it will be awhile before major things are handled by bots.

Who should be worried of bots?

The big threat is for Apple, which has benefited the most from the app empire, followed by Google. While Apple earned $20 billion from the App Store last year, it is believed that Google earned close to $7 billion from Google Play. The big gainers would be Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon.

However, it is not going to be all that easy. While it is easy to build an app and get users to download and use it, that’s not the case with bots. Here, the computer has to understand the language and carry on a sensible conversation. That’s where Tay stumbled. While there are many words that have multiple meanings for the user, it is difficult for a computer to comprehend what exactly the user meant. So, while bots will shake up the app world initially, it will be awhile before it can be overthrown.

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