Chatting Up a Storm

I’ve been talking about a “meta-app” for ages. It looks like China may have found it in WeChat. We in the Western World have been monitoring the success of TenCent’s WeChat with growing interest. Who would have thought that a simple chat interface could be the killer app of the future?

Chat interfaces seem so old school. They appear to be clunky and inefficient. But the beauty of chat is that it’s completely flexible. As’s David Pierce said, “You can, for all intents and purposes, live your entire life within WeChat.” That’s exactly the type of universal functionality you need to become a meta-app.

We’ve always envisioned having conversations with our computers, even going back to Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But we didn’t think out conversations would be carried out in text bubbles on a hand held device. A PEW study found that texting is the single most common activity on a Smartphone. 97% of us do it. So if messaging is the new UI, none of us have to learn anything new.

Graphic interfaces are necessarily tied to a particular task. The interface is designed for a specific intent. But messaging interfaces can adapt as intents change. They can quickly switch from social messaging to purchasing online to searching for an address to – well – you get the idea.

But where texting really shines is when it’s combined with artificially intelligent chatbots. A simple, universally understood interface that’s merged with powerful intelligent agents – either human and machine – allows the user to quickly request or do anything they wish. The functionality of intent specific apps can be called on as required and easily introduced into the chat interface.

In effect, text messaging is doing exactly what Apple hoped Siri would do – become the universal interface to the digital world. Given that speaking would appear to be easier than texting, one has to wonder why Siri never really gained the traction that Apple hoped it would. I think this can be attributed to three reasons:

  • The difficulties of spoken interpretation still restricts the functionality of Siri. The success rate isn’t high enough to completely gain our confidence
  • The use case of Siri is still primarily when we need to keep our hands free. It’s not that easy to switch to interactions where tactile input is required
  • We look like idiots speaking to a machine

All of these are avoided in a chat-based interface. We still have the flexibility of a conversational interface but we still have all the power of our device at our fingertips. Plus, we don’t infringe on any social taboos.

Given the advantages, it’s small wonder that a number of players – primarily Facebook – are seriously plotting for the commercialization of chat based messaging services. There’s one other massive advantage that a stand-alone messaging interface has. The more activities we conduct through any particular interface, the greater the opportunity for personalization. I’ve always maintained that a truly useful “meta-app” should be able to anticipate our intent. That requires interactions across the broad spectrum of our activities. Previously only operating systems offered this type of breadth and because OS’s operate “under the hood,” there were some limitations on the degree of personalization – and through that, commercialization – that was possible. But an app we explicitly choose to use seems to be fair game for commercialization. It’s one of those unwritten social modality rules that advertisers are well advised to be aware of.

Between Messenger and WhatsApp, Facebook has a huge slice of the chat market. They just passed the 900 million user mark for Messenger alone. According to a recent study from the Global Web Index, over 36% of users have used Messenger in the past month, followed closely by WhatsApp at 34%, then Skype at 19%, Line at 10% and Viber and SnapChat at 7% each. These numbers exclude the Chinese market, which is dominated by WeChat, but it remains to be seen if WeChat can expand its base beyond Asia.

And leaked documents from earlier this year indicated that Messenger may soon introduce targeted ads. This hardly qualifies as a security breach. It’s more of a “Duh – ya think?” The rumor mill around the commercialization of Messenger has been going full steam in 2016. If chatting is the UI juggernaut it seems to be, of course we will soon see ads there. WeChat is well down this road, and it seems to be working like a charm, if the recent Smart Car promotion is any example.


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