Why Bots Aren't Ready to Replace Mobile Apps

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2016-04-21 Print this article Print
Bot Hype

Bots fail when the user is burdened with knowing and remembering which bots to use and memorizing the command that starts the conversation.

For artificial intelligence to choose bots for us, they have to genuinely understand human language. And not just language, but regional dialects, age-specific wording and spelling. For example, teenagers talk, spell and punctuate differently than 50-year-olds.

This is a problem that hundreds of companies, university research labs and other groups have been working on for decades. Progress on this front is very slow.

Take Siri, for example, which started as a Pentagon project before being spun out and run by some of the top virtual assistant experts and then acquired by Apple, which has been throwing resources at it for years.

Apple controls 100 percent of the Siri system, unlike bot platforms where developers build arbitrary commands and responses. Even given all that investment and all those advantages, Siri understands queries only most of the time when users have learned how to use it. Many users are turned off by Siri's inability to handle random questions and queries.

Bots are expected to be popular because messaging apps are popular. The "logic" goes like this: Since people have their eyeballs glued to messaging apps, companies need only go where the attention is and everyone will succeed.

This is the worst assumption I've seen the industry make in a long time.

People use messaging in part because it's free from complexity, marketing and advertising. Companies falsely assume that the messaging halo effect will rub off on their bot-based marketing efforts. It won't. If bots aren't forced on users, they'll be ignored. If they are forced on users, bots are more likely to kill messaging as the hot social platform.

I enjoy chatting with family and friends in my favorite messaging app. That doesn't mean I want to use that app for banking, shopping and getting news.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella proclaimed recently that "bots are the new apps." And he's right, but not in the way he intended.

Bots are being promoted and highlighted one at a time, in isolation. And in isolation, some bots are great. X.ai's Amy, for example, is excellent. And the 1-800-FLOWERS bot might be a good way to order flowers.

But in aggregate—as a user interface category—bots are problematic.

If bots succeed—if thousands of companies build them—there will soon be far more bots than users can handle, find, remember or use. The idea that bots are a solution to the app problem is wishful thinking.

Let's fast-forward three years, and estimate conservatively that consumers are confronted with 50,000 individual bots available from hundreds of bot stores. Each bot has its own unique, specific commands that must be memorized by the user in order to launch and use it.

You end up with the "app problem," but worse. How will users discover them? And, once discovered and used, how will they remember to go back to them? Bot fatigue will turn users off from the whole category.

At least apps have a visible icon presence on your phone to remind you they exist. And apps don't require you to know the magic words to activate them.

Bots are a great idea, and they will inevitably change the world. But not for many years—not until machines can truly understand human language and when bot platforms can choose individual bots for you intelligently.

So don't believe the hype about bots.



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