Are Chatbots the Fifth Wave of Internet Communications?

We’ve just returned from the annual MobileBeat conference in San Francisco, where chatbots took center stage. They also raise a major question: are chatbots the next revolution in internet-based communications?

A Brief History of Communication and the Internet

The first generation of communications dates from the pre-internet era of ARPANET in the 1970s, and focused on email and its different protocols. Future iterations saw extensions to web-based user interfaces, but the essential features–namely, the static way of interacting with emails (read when you want, send when you want)–remained the same.

The second generation of internet-based communications began in 1988, when Finland’s Jarkko Oikarinen invented IRC and ushered in text-based chat services and a movement towards real-time communication.

This subsequently led to what I call the third wave of internet communications: in the 1990s, the introduction of VOIP allowed circuit-switched telecom services to migrate to being provisioned over the internet, paving the way for real-time desktop audio and video-sharing services like Skype and AIM.

The rise of the smartphone (and particularly the introduction of the iPhone in 2007) led to the fourth wave of internet communications. Services like real-time chatting repositioned their products as mobile apps; these apps established the new norm for user interfaces and the ubiquitous, always-with-you nature of both the device and communication services. Messaging apps like Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and Line are prime examples of fourth wave products.

At the same time, some third wave services like Skype successfully adapted their model to this app-centric ecosystem, but radically new services like Whatsapp, built entirely on top of a mobile app paradigm, also emerged.

Now, with chatbots, we are potentially witnessing the fifth wave of internet communications. There are enough significant reasons for us to call this a radically incremental new service concept. The key innovation is actually in the notion of who you are communicating with, and what that interface is.

A Radically New Communication Concept

Chatbots are centralized on the idea of building communications between the user and vast amount of data and rules that govern how a user can request information, updates, or news, using the chatbot as the user interface. Artificial intelligence and machine learning support these interactions, and the ability to provide the right information in real time is not only possible, but also an increasingly practical option for many services.

For consumers, chatbots (often working with some level of human guidance) can place commercial transactions such as booking tables for restaurants, completing a flight reservation, cancelling a hotel room, or ordering flowers for a loved one.

Now, the big question is, how will these chatbots be accessed and distributed?

Social media platforms in general and mobile in particular are natural environments to support this burgeoning chatbot ecosystem: it’s contextual, location-based, and real-time. Moreover, these platforms already know who you talk to, what your interests are, and what services you might need at exactly the right moment.

We’ve already seen this emerge in various Asian markets: China’s WeChat has supported chatbots since 2013, and Japan’s LINE introduced support for bots this past April – just a few days before Mark Zuckerberg announced support for bots on Facebook Messenger.

There are multiple options for chatbot developers to leverage their product on this fifth wave of internet communications: choosing from several existing social media and messaging platforms, or creating an organic audience from scratch. While the appeal of tapping into Facebook’s global audience of 900 million Facebook Messenger users is obvious, it also comes with a few major pitfalls, which we discussed earlier this week.

Even for developers who  decide to use an existing messaging platform to distribute their bot, choosing a messaging platform is a bit of a gamble. Based on Verto’s Messaging Apps Report, the most popular messaging apps vary considerably in their reach as well as their user engagement stats – and that’s not even taking demographics or niche markets into consideration.

There are certainly no easy choices, but there’s plenty of data for chatbot developers (and industry watchers) to consider. Verto’s forthcoming Messaging App Index tracks the evolution of individual apps and, more important, key user behavior metrics like engagement, which are a far better indicator of user interest in any given platform.  The next two to three years will be fundamental in shaping and identifying the most engaging messaging platforms, and subsequently the most successful chatbot services.

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