Apps vs. Bots: Apple Messages Takes Different Path

by: | Jun 28, 2016

good bot bad bot ebookThe recent WWDC provided a lot of things people were expecting: the opening up of Siri to third-party developers, a watchOS UX rethinking, and macOS rebranding with Siri finally joining the Mac party, and more. With that said, Apple took a decidedly different and surprising approach with its messaging platform. Rather than following other industry heavyweights in the pursuit of chatbots, the company has opened up Apple Messages to third parties using a very familiar paradigm: apps. Similar to iOS and tvOS, Apple is enabling developers to create full-fledged apps that run as extensions to the Messages app.

This is a fundamentally different path than Google and Facebook, which have bet big on the concept of bots — as have other messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Line, WeChat and Kik. Slack in its own right is taking the enterprise bot world by storm, and arguably the utility of chatbots may be even greater in the enterprise than for consumers — but for the sake of this post, I’m focusing on the consumer market. To start, here’s an overview of what the three most important players in messaging are now offering users and developers.

Comparing Google, Facebook and Apple

In essence, Google and Facebook represent opposite ends of the bot spectrum. Google has a single assistant bot that is constantly analyzing all conversations and attempts to understand and respond to all relevant requests. Facebook’s Messenger is a platform for hosting third-party bots that are like virtual friends — though users need to search for and find these digital denizens before they engage with them. Apple, meanwhile, has offered to host full apps (beyond just bots) that live on the Messages platform. Here’s a little more detail about each approach.

Google Allo

At the recent Google I/O, Google announced Allo, an entirely new messaging platform (to go along with Google Hangouts, which reportedly isn’t going away).

  • User experience: Allo has a resident bot, which the company generically refers to as the “Google assistant,” built into the platform. The assistant constantly analyzes ongoing conversations so it can better serve you when called upon. You can simply type @google with your requests. Google assistant’s machine learning promises contextual knowledge about users and what is going on around them.
  • Discoverability: Building a brand presence on Allo means exposing the content of your app to the Google assistant through deep linking.
  • Developer opportunity: Although Allo will likely allow Google assistant to delve into apps on a device, that is only because of the deep linking mechanism that already exists on Android through search. There’s no additional work to be done to make an app Allo ready.
  • Brand opportunity: Allo is a new platform that’s starting with zero users. Which means there won’t be a lot of value for brands in the short term.

Facebook Messenger

Facebook has provided an extremely simple chatbot platform for brands and developers to enable direct-to-consumer messaging.

  • User experience: Chatbots are best when they’re used for specific interactions that have limited potential inputs and responses. Some of the simplistic bots have a similar purpose to an automated phone system: The bots respond to input by pushing users to the appropriate content (which may live on the web or in an app) just as a phone system would take you to the right content or person.
  • Discoverability: Users can engage with bots either by finding it through a search on Messenger, or by being launched into the messaging interface through another channel (e.g. a company’s website).
  • Developer opportunity: Facebook unveiled the Messenger Platform, and with it, a comprehensive toolset to enable devs to create bots that will live on Messenger.
  • Brand opportunity: Reportedly, there are more than 900 million active users on Messenger. Effectively tapping into that audience could be a virtual gold mine for brands.

Apple Messages

Rather than limiting potentially complex interactions to text-based conversations, Apple is allowing developers to create full applications for Messages users that run within the platform, offering more deeply engaging experiences than a chatbot could provide. Just like Apple proclaimed with the launch of the new Apple TV that the future of TV is apps, they are making a similar bet with chatting by adding app support into the Messages platform.

  • User experience: Borrowing the example from Apple’s WWDC Keynote, imagine ordering a group lunch for a company meeting by using an app like Door Dash: Simply launch the Door Dash app while in the Apple Messages group you have started. You can see the menu, choose your individual order, and then others can add their menu selections — without ever leaving the chat thread. At the end, you can check out and pay the bill in the Messages group. To complete this kind of transaction using chatbots on Facebook Messenger or Google’s Allo would require a series of steps that might be more painful than useful. Chatbots on those platforms are better suited to push users to a web page or application to perform a complex transaction.
  • Discoverability: Apple Messages will have its own dedicated app store, accessed directly from the interface.
  • Developer opportunity: Apple provides tools within the Xcode 8 beta SDK that will help developers build standalone Apple Messages apps, or extensions from other iOS apps.
  • Brand opportunity: Like Facebook, the universe of users is enormous. Everyone with an iOS device has Messages built in — and the number of messages sent daily is reportedly well into the billions.

Apple Messages: the chat platform of choice for group apps?

Another of the big differences between bots that live on consumer platforms and apps that will live on Apple’s Messages is serving one vs. serving many. With Apple Messages, applications can be designed to solve problems that exist for groups (and in that way, it is more similar to applications and bots that are integrated with workgroup chat services like Slack).

Use cases could include group ordering (as described above, but expanded to trips, products, etc.), brainstorming (virtual whiteboarding), turn-based gaming, creative applications (drawing/writing/music), entertainment (concerts/sporting event booking), and the list goes on. The apps and the groups that use them can coexist in the same shared space, while allowing multiple people to interact with them.

A range of Apple Messages app opportunities

One of my friends asked me recently if the news about Messages was groundbreaking. The answer: No, not really. Whether it’s a bot on Facebook Messenger, an application on Apple’s Messages, or an app on your phone, they are all fundamentally software-driven experiences. They all offer the potential to solve different user needs. And they all present the opportunity for brands to connect with their customers in new ways.

Businesses pursuing these opportunities need to create products that solve real user problems — and not just chase perceived business opportunities. Applications for Messages need to provide value in a way that makes sense without leaving the Apple Messages platform — offering a better experience in that moment than just leaving Messages and launching a full app on the phone (or going to a website).

App makers also need to consider new variables in UX and UI design for Messages apps. The key is to make it simple for users to get in and out of the apps, as Messages is the host interface. Apps that are guests within it are an added value layer — but they shouldn’t hijack the experience. If you’re a UX/UI designer, you also need to consider many more adaptive sizes than for traditional apps — but that’s a big topic for another day.

The messaging war

So, now you may be wondering, “Am I better off building an app for Messages, a bot for Messenger, or exposing my app to Allo?” Putting any budget and resource limitations aside, the answer is, “Yes, yes and yes.” Ultimately it comes down to what problem you’re trying to solve for which audience.

Naturally, this new “messaging war” is leading so-called pundits to predict winners and losers. That rings familiar. But if history is any indicator, it’s less about winners and losers and more about evolution, especially if you look at the two giants in mobile, Apple and Google. Just as Android and iOS have evolved to be more similar over time, varied approaches in messaging platforms are likely to converge. But that evolution won’t happen without businesses and developers like us diving in and building more apps and bots, which will evolve along with their platforms.

Let’s talk messaging

Whether or not you’re ready to start building bots for Facebook Messenger or apps for Apple Messages today, we’re happy to help answer any questions. Contact us and we’ll set up a time to talk.