Chatbot or App? Slack’s $80 Million App Fund Says ‘Talk to me’

Instead of creating the "app" for your business, now might be the right time to think about the chatbot. As long as people like hearing ourselves talk, chatbots are going to be an increasingly effective way for businesses to listen.

Ah, Siri–she’s getting so useful now that she can summon me an Uber. From my laptop.

And Amazon’s Alexa, she’s got her quirks, but there’s no doubt that girl loves to do my shopping a lot more than I do. Slack’s $80 million venture fund is also saying “talk to me” to the plug in developers out there–and it’s going long on chatbots and chatbot dev frameworks.

Instead of building a classic UI app, the tide may be turning to time to build a chatbot. According to Citibank analyst Mark May, app stores generate about $40 billion annually. If the interfaces become even easier, apps will be talking their way into a bigger share of everyone’s wallet.

Why chatbots are gaining an edge

Chatbots are as accessible on a low bandwidth cell phone in the Sahara as they are in San Diego. That means if you’re a global provider of almost anything, you can reach more of the world. Plus, people are optimized to communicate with people. But today, most apps are a physical interface–you have to touch buttons and menus to guide the application. Typing, handling a joystick, and other forms of physical sign we use for machines take time to master. Chat bots are human native. You don’t have to learn anything to use them. Plus, on the technical side, a chatbot doesn’t need a big, beautiful, responsive graphical user interface. It doesn’t hog a lot of memory to run. Nor does it require a super fast processor to work.

You already know programs excel at predictable, repetitive interactions.  For example, Ikea has reskinned its how-to-build-this manuals into a chat interface. Do your customers have patterns where you could help them more if you had a scalable, chatty side? After all, most folk sleep in the same places, eat much of the same food, shop at many of the same stores, work out in a few patterns, drive a steady route, and work in many of the same ways. This is heaven for a chatbot interface.

Instead of creating the “app” for your business, now might be the right time to think about the bot. As long as people like hearing ourselves talk, chatbots are going to be an increasingly effective way for businesses to listen. What do you think–is the app economy giving way to chatonomics?

First published in my column in Inc. Magazine