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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

Look Ma, no apps, just messages

The fact Donald Rumsfeld is now in the app business is not the only reason to believe that mobile apps have reached a plateau.


The mobile app industry, it seems, is settling down: Android and iOS have formed an entrenched duopoly, the same few familiar publisher names dominate app store rankings, while the rest are fighting for every app install. But…

Just as mobile app industry starts to mature, things are about to turn upside down again

The days when almost every mobile use case required a dedicated mobile app may soon be over. As it looks, fancy graphical user interfaces are about to give way to spartan-looking messaging bots. Such messaging apps as WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, Viber, Weixin, LINE, consistently lead in usage and sessions per app. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, acknowledged in 2014 that:

“Messaging is one of the few things people do more than social networking.”

Messaging apps trained hundreds of millions of people to use a text-based user interface to message their friends and family. Now this user interface paradigm is being extended into communication with brands, companies and services. At the same time, [tweetable]messaging apps are transforming into messaging platforms[/tweetable].

The transition to a conversational paradigm is already in full swing in China. Weixin (known as Wechat outside China) allows users use the messaging app to hail a taxi, order food delivery, buy movie tickets, play casual games, check in for a flight, send money to friends, book a doctor’s appointment, get banking statements, pay the water bill, find geo-targeted coupons, search for a book at the local library, get updates from their kids school, get a loan, donate to charity, and even participate in court proceedings.

In 2010 reaching mobile users was all about apps. In 2016 messaging platforms emerge as the next frontier in tech after apps, social and the web itself.

Facebook is the undisputed leader in messaging platforms – Outside China

Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) have amassed 800 million and 900 million monthly active users respectively, becoming the largest messaging platforms second only to SMS which has 3.8 billion users. Both Messenger and WhatsApp are shifting their business models from person-to-person messaging to B2B2C, that is helping businesses to interact with mobile users.

This is very worrying news for Google’s B2B2C business. Hangouts, Google’s own messaging app, failed to make a dent and win substantial user base. Surprisingly, this is despite that the app has over 1 billion installs – every Android handset maker has to pre-install Hangouts together with Search, Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube and other Google apps. However few people use the app – Most Android users don’t even know that the Hangouts app is installed on their handsets.

Apple can potentially become a player in messaging platforms with its iMessage service. However, learning from the history of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), Apple will need to make iMessage available on Android to provide comparable user reach. Coincidentally, Microsoft is a ‘no show’ at the messaging party, despite having had a head start with the Skype acquisition – another miss for the Redmond company.

Calling all chat bot developers

Facebook has began turning Messenger into a B2B2C channel by working with a small number of partners, that includes Uber, Hyatt, Walmart, and KLM airlines, as well as smaller e-commerce company JackThreads and startup Assist.

There is no doubt that as soon as the Messenger SDK is ready for the prime time, Facebook will make it available to all developers. Today messaging startups, such as Operator, Agent Q and Mezi in shopping, Magic in virtual assistants, Digit in personal finance, Pana in travel, have to either use SMS or build their own messaging apps. When Facebook opens the Messenger SDK (and presumably WhatsApp later) we will see a burst of innovation with all these startups moving to the platform with hundreds and thousands of new developers joining them.

The shift from apps to messaging platforms brings upon new opportunities to developers. They can innovate in creating engaging user experiences without fancy graphics, and leave behind the issues of dreaded App Store approval, app updates and OS fragmentation. This excellent post by Meekan, a calendar assistant bot, gives a glimpse on what it takes to “cheat on the Turing test”.

Moreover, building conversational bots costs less and takes less time than building and maintaining apps for iOS and Android platforms. This will allow developers to iterate much faster and discover new messaging use cases we just cannot imagine today.

We at VisionMobile believe that much like in mobile apps [tweetable]developers will be the kingmakers of the messaging era[/tweetable] – We will begin tracking the experience of messaging bot developers in our upcoming 11th Edition of the Developer Economics survey.

This time the developer-led innovation will shift from the walled gardens of Apple App Store and Google Play the the walled garden of Facebook. Discovery, recommendations and monetisation of messaging-based services will be controlled by Facebook in a sort of a messaging bot “app store”. How exactly such an “app store” will look like it’s too early to say. For example Slack, the messaging leader in the enterprise, takes the traditional app store approach for showing users all the bots and integrations available on the platform. (I’m not convinced that this is the only way – I’d like to see something as friendly as Meekan to help me connect with the right services.)

While many questions remain, it’s clear the tech industry is ready to move from the “there is an app for that” world to the “there is a bot for that” future.

— Michael


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