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Remember when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella famously proclaimed back in early 2016 that “bots are the new apps”? Well, it looks like that prediction is finally starting to come true. In mid-2016, there were approximately 11,000 Facebook Messenger bots. A year later, there were approximately 100,000 bots. If that’s not exponential growth, then what is?
The problem of too many bots
There’s just one problem, however, and it has to do with discoverability. How, exactly, are you supposed to find and use those 100,000 bots? For example, did you know that Starbucks had a Facebook Messenger bot to make the coffee-buying experience even more enjoyable? Oh, you did? Well, then, did you know that upscale fashion brand Burberry had a bot? Or that Sephora had a bot for makeup tutorials? Or that there’s even something called the “Insomnobot”? (Forget counting sheep to get to sleep at night, use the Insomnobot instead!)
Cross-platform integration for bots is still a mess
Another problem involves cross-platform integration. This is a common problem in the tech world, and it’s no different in the bot world. For example, a bot created for the Facebook Messenger platform won’t work on the Kik platform. And now all the major tech companies – such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Samsung are trying to create their own industry standard for bots. That means even more integration nightmares, and probably a lot of long nights for mobile developers. Imagine being told that a bot has to work for 3, 4, or 5 different platforms? This comes at a time when simply launching an app that works for both iOS and Android can seem like a chore at times!
But it’s clear that all the big tech giants are coming up with innovative new ideas for bots. Amazon has even gone so far as to launch Lex (a variant of Alexa, as you might have guessed by the name), an AI-powered bot. Samsung has Viv, a Siri clone. And Google is working on something called Chatbase (when it comes to social, we never really know what Google is doing, but you can guess that Chatbase will be built on top of its search platform).
Are chatbots a trend… or a fad?
Not surprisingly, VC investors have been dipping into the space, looking for the first great chatbot company. Things might get a little frothy, though. Investing in a chatbot company sounds a lot like some other “hot” VC trends in past years, like investing in social gaming companies that make cute little games for your phone.
Ultimately, the question that brands have to ask themselves is, “If we build it, will they come?” In other words, if they sink time and money into creating and marketing a chatbot solution, are customers really going to notice or care? For many people, these bots are the equivalent of the cool app that everyone downloads, uses once, and promptly ignores forever after. It may be cool that Starbucks can program a pumpkin spice latte chat bot, but are you really going to put up with that Starbucks bot if it keeps trying to pop up on your screen when you don’t want it to?
So it might be too early to proclaim the rise of the “global chatbot economy,” as some tech media publications have done. For now, that seems like a bit of hype and wishful thinking. However, big things could be coming over the next 24 months. That’s because, back in December 2016, 80 percent of marketers said they had plans to launch a chatbot by 2020. That sounds about right – it may be too early now, but with more cross-platform integration, bots could really catch on as something that you’d use every day in just two more years.