Why Bots Aren’t Ready To Replace Mobile Apps

facebook, mark zuckerberg

Everybody’s hyping bots as a solution to out-of-control mobile apps. Don’t believe the hype

Suddenly, bots are everywhere. Bots are the next big platform. Bots will save us from the “app problem.”

What’s the app problem? For starters, there are too many of them. Users have trouble discovering them. App makers have trouble getting users to install and use them. And even when a user does find, install and use an app, it’s hard to keep them coming back to it.

A bot is simply an application with a “conversational user interface.” It’s an old idea recently given new life.

You interact with a bot by typing words, then getting words back from the software, which is installed on some remote server somewhere in the cloud.

Bots are supposed to be better than apps because there’s nothing to install. Just fire off the right command or question in your text or messaging app, and the information comes back to you.

If you want to try bots yourself, check out some of the new bot directories, such as BotPages and Botlist.

messenger botsThe hype is coming from Microsoft, Facebook and other companies. For them, bots represent a second chance to gain a foothold in the mobile space. By replacing apps and sites with cross-platform bots, these companies are hoping to build dominant platforms that make mobile operating systems obsolete, or at least irrelevant.

It’s a long shot, but they’re encouraged by the obsession with messaging among younger users.

Microsoft, for example, recently rolled out a new bot called Tay for 18- to 24-year-olds. Users can interact with Tay on Twitter, GroupMe, Kik, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. As you interact, the bot learns more about you, including your gender, ZIP code, relationship status and other information. Microsoft says it used “improvisational comedians” to write the interaction.

However, Microsoft had to shut down Tay in late March after the bot started spouting offensive tweets with racist comments. Microsoft apologized for Tay’s behavior, and a company spokesperson told eWEEK in an email statement that it was the result “of a coordinated effort by some users to abuse Tay’s commenting skills to have Tay respond in inappropriate ways.”

While Microsoft says it will work to repair Tay’s vulnerability, this bot is really just an experimental trifle. The real initiative is Microsoft’s bot platform, where third-party developers can build their own bots, which could be summoned via Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant.

Microsoft’s Bot Framework involves a GitHub-hosted Bot Builder software development kit and other components, which enables developers to create bots for texting, Kik, Slack, Telegram and, of course, Microsoft’s Skype.

Facebook made similar noise at its F8 developer conference this month when it rolled out a bot platform for Messenger and also for building chat widgets for the Web. Facebook announced new shopping bots within Messenger, for example, that let you buy things from Spring and 1-800-FLOWERS, as well as a news bot from CNN.

But it’s not just Microsoft and Facebook vying to be the dominant bot platform. Messaging powerhouse Slack in December announced its BotKit, which is an open-source framework for building bots.

The messaging platform Telegram is luring developers with $1 million for grants to developers for building bots on its 1-year-old bot platform. It’s already got a bot store.

Kik launched a bot store this month, too. And it’s trying to make it easy for developers to build Kik bots. Furthermore, Japan’s Line this month rolled out a limited way for some developers to start creating Line bots.