[Part 1] Messengers + bots = The end of apps?
C-3PO: I’m quite sure you’ll be very pleased with that one, sir. He really is in first-class condition. I’ve worked with him before.
Luke: Okay, let’s go.
(From Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope)
You might remember this little bit of dialogue from the scene in Star Wars: Episode 4 where C-3PO (the trusty robot sidekick) is telling Luke Skywalker (the protagonist) which robot to buy.
Imagine having a robot that you can talk to and get answers from right away whenever you’re in a pinch. Sounds like something you’d see in a sci-fi flick like Star Wars, right?
Not anymore. That kind of reality is a lot closer than you might think—it’s right in the palm of your hand, actually— just a tap on your smartphone away.
Here’s a shot from the most recent F8 conference, a developer-oriented gathering that convened in San Francisco on April 4, 2016. At the event, Facebook unveiled a free tool for developing bots that can use the Facebook Messenger platform to chat directly with users.
The real-life doors to that futuristic, “only in the movies” world are wide open.
“Messengers” and “bots,” two big buzzwords that have continued to make news over the last several months, are quickly becoming the centerpieces of what Facebook—and companies around the world—are envisioning for the future.
The basic idea behind putting a messenger and bot (an automated interaction system) together is relatively simple: a messenger user chats with a bot, which automatically generates responses and enables the user to purchase items, make reservations, and use other services.
If you’re looking for examples of basic bot services, there are already several up and running in Japan. One is the “Domino’s Quick Order” LINE bot, which Domino’s Pizza launched last September. As you can see in the illustration below, sending an “Order pizza” message to the LINE bot automatically brings up a link to the online ordering interface. There’s no need to call the local store or even navigate manually to the website; all you need to do is open LINE and send a simple message.
Ordering pizza is just the tip of the iceberg, though. What if you could use a bot to buy clothes, book flights, and get quick, interactive access to all sorts of other services? Say you could send a bot a message that says, “I need to go to San Francisco on business next Wednesday, so book me a flight,” have the bot make your reservation immediately, and even check your e-tickets right on the messenger interface? If you could get that kind of functionality with a simple messenger, you’d never need to go to the trouble of opening a standalone app (or website). The messenger and the bot would be able to take care of everything for you.
That’s right—messenger-bot mashups could essentially replace apps altogether, rendering the “app” obsolete.
In this three-part series, we’ll be unraveling the historical development of information technology to chart out possibilities for the future of messenger-bot innovation.
■What are “messengers” and “bots,” anyway?
“Messengers” are chat tools like LINE and Skype. There’s a pretty good chance that you use one on a routine basis.
LINE holds the biggest share of the messenger market in Japan, boasting a user base that represents 46% of the country’s population and an impressive active user rate of 70%.
All in all, LINE is quickly becoming a crucial infrastructural component of everyday Japanese life.
What are things like outside Japan? Take a look at the graphic below, which shows how many active users each of the leading messengers has. QQ mobile and WeChat are both primarily China-based services (and both run by Tencent), so WhatsApp and Facebook have staked their claims as “fully global” front-runners with active user bases of over 800 million apiece. Facebook actually acquired WhatsApp in 2014, making Facebook the leading company of the whole messenger arena.
Monthly active users of leading messengers (January 2016)
Another popular service is Kik, which doesn’t disclose its active user counts but boasts impressive usage rates that observers say cover roughly 40% of the US teenage population. Kik was one of the first messengers to start using bots, solidifying its position as a trendsetter in the field.
Other messengers include business-driven apps like Chatwork, Hipchat, and Slack. Despite being designed for a more limited, business-first audience, the messengers are still exhibiting tremendous success. Not only did Slack raise $200 million this April, but it’s also achieved incredible 3.5x year-to-year user growth (2.7 million active users as of April 1, 2016).
Of the messengers that we’ve looked at, six—Facebook, Skype, LINE, Kik, Slack, and HipChat—have already implemented bot functionality. The number speaks for itself: bots are riding a surging wave of popularity.
How do bots work, then? Basically, a bot is an automated interaction system.
The image below diagrams the LINE bot setup. When a user sends a message to the bot, LINE’s BOT API automatically connects the user to the corresponding service provider’s system. The system then analyzes the user’s message and returns an automated response. Fitting with its origins in the word “robot,” a “bot” does the work of an actual person by generating automatic responses.
How the LINE BOT API works
The next image is a screenshot of a LINE conversation with “Panda-Ichiro,” an official LINE bot account that Recruit Jobs Co., Ltd. and Recruit Technologies Co., Ltd. created using natural language processing technologies. Users can ask the bot, which debuted in July 2014, for weather details, job leads, and other information in a simple, conversational format.
“Panda-Ichiro,” an official LINE bot, responds to a query
※the comment in green: What’s the weather like in Tokyo?
※the comment in white: Tokyo has a high temperature of 23 degrees Celsius, a low of 20 degrees Celsius, rainfall of 1 mm, and a humidity of 79%. The forecast is calling for light rain today.
LINE actually began offering companies an API for developing bots (the “LINE Business Connect” service) in 2014. Although the company eventually expanded the availability of the Bot API to companies and individual users alike on April 7, 2016, the initiative is still in a trial phase and operates with a limit of 10,000 users. LINE is planning a full-scale launch of the API this summer.
I hope I’ve given you a clearer idea of what messengers and bots do. I could only profile some of the bots that specific companies have released thus far, but bot numbers are bound to skyrocket once Facebook and LINE make their Bot APIs available for public use. Soon, we’ll be seeing bots provide a wider array of services in even more natural patterns of interaction.
Next time, we’ll look at the history of the IT world for a better understanding of why these changes are happening.
Hiroshi Nakano, Business Producer
Joined DI after working in ZIGExN company. In ZIGExN, Hiroshi launched a Vietnamese subsidiary and worked as CEO. In the company, he is engaged in an offshore development of 50 people and pursuing a wide range of business activities such as the expansion of a web services business aimed locally, business strategy decisions, marketing, recruitment and training.
At DI, as a central member of Asia development in investment destinations such as Wrap Media, he is engaged in planning growth strategy as well as business development strategy, implementation support, etc. It also pursues consultancy activities in Japan, such as developing new business strategies for the manufacturing industry and brand strategies for makers of consumer products.
BA from the Department of Electrical and Electric Engineering, and a MA from the Graduate School of Electrical Physics at Tokyo Institute of Technology.