Apps to apathy

Websites and point and click menus are designed for computer screens. Client-side applications, or Apps – small computer programs – are designed to run on smaller screens of handheld devices like phones and tablets. Navigation is undertaken using point and touch, finger flicks, scrolls, swipes, or other hand gestures.  Good retailers have apps available for download at app stores making it easy for their customers to discover content, products, and services.

Retailers also optimize their websites for mobile devices but apps are preferred because they provide better data analytics, are faster and more secure, and for very small devices such as digital watches, apps are the only choice.

But good apps are expensive to build. Development, testing, ensuring seamless integration with a myriad of external systems that the app connects to to exchange data, the vast array of mobile devices and operating systems, fixing bugs, re-testing, obtaining approval of the all-powerful app stores – are some of the things that make the whole business of making high-grade apps a veritable headache for even the largest retailers.

For users, apps can be hard to find on their digital devices once they have installed one too many. Each app requires some small screen real estate and sooner or later, if you have avid app curiosity but a short memory and an even shorter attention span (like me), you are bound to have a screen-load of forgotten-but-never removed apps. App curiosity leads to downloads but leaves screens confused and cluttered. And what if an app is used regularly, it needs to be updated on a regular basis. The updated version is often hardly any better than the previous one.

To avoid clutter, users become reluctant to download new apps, particularly retailer apps, if they are not sure they will use the app again or if they are connected wirelessly to the app store. Studies show that most people use 3 to 5 apps on a regular basis. The rest are used occasionally or forgotten. One category of apps ranked right at the top in terms of popularity with users – relates to messaging apps.

Chat is clutter-less

People use messaging apps for sending and receiving short messages. Content such as pictures and videos, digital tokens, stickers, and vouchers can be embedded in a message. The “big four” messaging platforms: whatsapp, Viber, Facebook Messenger, and WeChat are household names the world over. Others like snapchat and Line are also extremely popular.

There is a reason why Facebook paid stratospheric sums for the likes of WhatsAspp and Instagram or why the youthful founders of Snapchat spurned its multi-billion dollar advances because there is widespread agreement in the industry that messaging is the next omni-platform which will cater to all our digital needs including buying, selling, and paying for products and services.

Pavel Durov, creator of VK, which is Russia’s answer to FB boasting over 350 million users, after selling VK controversially, has now set up “Telegram”, which focuses on messaging. Its progress has ben phenomenal. From 100 thousand users in October 2013, it grew to 35M in 6 months and after a little over a year, 50M consumers. Today it claims 100 million active users with 350,000 signing up every day generating 15 billion messages daily. While many users prefer Telegram to other chats platforms because it offers better security, it has another distinct advantage. Telegram aims to be the new digital platform with a “bot store” (rather than an app store) where bots – small programs that automate remote tasks – can be bought to develop automated intelligent chat engines. The company, its platform, and its perspectives on security have attracted a lot of controversy. But it has also shown that automated messaging platforms that allow bots to interact with users and intelligently perform tasks for them, have deep relevance to how we will be performing everyday tasks, including digital commerce, in the future. For example, you don’t need to fire up the weather app to check the weather, you just ask the chat platform much like you ask a person. The language that the bot understands is the language in everyday use. Bots are not necessarily clever inventions based on artificial intelligence but programs that do a lot of routine stuff for us.

Bots for banking

Chat bots for commerce may one day be better for doing banking, searching for things to buy, and paying for them, or sending money from one place to another, tracking transactions, obtaining refunds, resolving complaints and settling disputes. Things that can take a lot of our time on a daily basis. What also helps is that a majority of the questions or tasks we do are about the same stuff. These bots may even be voice guided like Siri and Cortana. If you want to know what your bank balance is, all you need to do is just ask. If you want to find the most convenient route and the cheapest airfare from one place to another, just talk.

China, as usual, is years ahead. In this massive market, the consumer take-up of messaging apps is staggering. Users can text, make voice calls, do video chat, play games, order taxis, book hotels, book restaurants, send and receive money remotely, and and even make contactless payments – all through a conversational interface. Sceptics attribute this phenomenon to the way the Chinese language is written. People very quickly pick up images that represent words rather than spelling them out (and having auto correct convert them to something else). It is likely that in the future all several separate scenarios will exist and will be available to all so that we will be able to use a method of digital discovery that suits us.

Bots will be better

Those who have firm faith in robotics and artificial intelligence say that bots will one day become so good, that only humans trained in the task of “interviewing” bots will be able to tell if they are having a conversation with a human or a bot, in scenes similar to the 80’s movie the Blade Runner, is only a matter of time. But surely, automated, self-learning, intelligent bots will be far better than humans and available round the clock.