Are bots the new apps?

Microsoft's failed Tay chatbot. Image: PCWorld

7 April 2016

Niall Kitson portraitAt Build last week Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella laid out a vision for bots, putting them in the middle of interactions between humans and machines. Cortana will become more than a personal assistant for your phone’s content and basic functions, it will become the medium through which we book meals in restaurants and even holidays by connecting with bots over software like Skype. No waiting, no computers, everything automated. “Bots are the new apps,” Nadella said, and when you look at applications like that you can see why. Bots take away a layer of interaction between people and machines, remove waiting times from the user experience and even cut down on the amount of technical savvy the average user will need.

Microsoft’s belief in bots has advanced so far that it has released Microsoft Bot Framework so developers can get to grips with them and deliver quality products with commercial applications.

Of course, your experience of bots may vary. Microsoft itself got a dose of reality with the shortlived Tay – a conversational chatbot aimed at Millennials that quickly learned some terrible habits before being pulled offline after less than a day.

The history of bots is hardly one of mischief and rough edges (looking at you Siri). The marketing campaign for the excellent sci-fi movie Ex Machina at SxSW Interactive in 2015 put the android Ava on Tinder with predictable results.

Probably the most fun use for bots on the Internet is on Twitter where automated content delivery ranges in usefulness from a list of Wikipedia edits done from Government IP addresses (@irishgovedits), to predictions of the future followed by tweets of people actually doing said things (@thesefutures), Wikipedia Gifs (@gifsofwikipedia).

Now messaging service Kik – which boasts 275 million mostly-US users – is showing us a bit more of what the future holds by releasing its own bot store. On top of being able to chat away with an algorithm, users can play games, find videos and play games through a number of branded bots developed by content partners like Vine.

Kik is an interesting case not only because it’s approach closely mimics the conventional App Store model but as it has a user base dominated by 13- to 24-year-olds (a massive 70%) it is in the position of being able to define what could become known as ‘generation bot’. Their’s is a prized demographic and a fun testing ground for brands and developers looking to try new things and create long-term commercial relationships.

Will we be seeing bots line up against apps for iOS and Android soon? The safe answer is yes. On top of Siri and Cortana, Facebook is looking to turn Messenger into a full-featured personal assistant with plenty of automation.

I’m waiting on the release of the therapy bot from George Lucas’ 1971 debut feature THX1138. It might be more of a droning cure than a talking cure, but if could be Siri’d it up a little who knows.

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