Evolving Apps vs Replacing Apps

on September 15, 2016

Monday presented us with an interesting juxtaposition: Facebook Messenger head David Marcus spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt and said their initial vision for bots was overhyped, and Apple opened up the iMessage App Store in preparation for the release of iOS 10 on Tuesday. The response to these two message-centric initiatives is illustrative of the challenges inherent in attempting to replace the existing app model versus merely evolving it.

Facebook’s bot vision gets a reboot

Facebook announced bots for Messenger at F8 earlier this year and tapped into what was then a lot of hype about bots as a possible replacement for apps, especially when taken together with Microsoft’s “Communication-as-a-Platform” announcements. But at TechCrunch Disrupt, David Marcus said the following (I’ve transcribed these from the event video, and edited it slightly in the process):

When you want to build an ecosystem, and bring a lot of developers to the platform and bring users to the platform, and at the same time reinvent the user experience, it takes a lot of time… We have over 34,000 developers on the platform, and they’re building either capabilities for third parties or actual experiences. The problem was that it got overhyped very quickly, and the experiences weren’t able to replace traditional apps. What we’ve done in the last couple of months is that we’ve invested in additional capabilities and provided a lot of guidance to developers on how to create successful experiences.

The fundamental problem Facebook faced in launching its Messenger bot strategy was it was pitching it as a replacement for apps but it simply wasn’t ready (something I wrote about at the time). The interfaces didn’t allow for complex interactions and, therefore, were unable to substitute for many of the things people use apps for. Part of the problem is the oversimplification of how bots are often described in the West in relation to how messaging has absorbed app functionality in Asia – major Asian messaging apps incorporate web views and many other app interface elements in a way Messenger’s bots interfaces simply didn’t. Leaving aside the cultural and historical differences between these markets, Facebook wasn’t even using the same elements to achieve the same results. It’s clear from Marcus’s remarks this week that Facebook understands this and the new version of the bot platform incorporates web views and other elements necessary to make these interfaces more functional. But what this ends up doing isn’t so much replacing the app model as recreating it within the context of messaging. That’s worked for many interactions in Asia and maybe it still will here, but that’s a far cry from the original vision of conversational user interfaces alone replacing apps.

That didn’t prevent developers from building on the platform. In the quote above, Marcus cites 34,000 developers who have done so, although not all have actually created bots. But the success, as Marcus also noted later in his remarks, has been limited to certain verticals, notably news.

iMessage apps get going with a bang

By contrast, Apple announced its updated iMessage platform at WWDC in June and this week we saw the launch of the iMessage App Store and iOS 10, making these features available to users. I have my iPhone set to update my apps automatically and generally ensure that updates happen every day. On Tuesday, I had over 40 apps with updates, the vast majority of which were iOS 10-related. Many of those in turn adding functionality to Messenger. Games now have sticker packs for iMessage, payment apps were making themselves available within both iMessage and Siri, and apps from IMDB to Evernote were providing extensions for iMessage to allow their content to be more easily shared. In the time since then, I’ve seen even more apps go down the same route and a quick glance at the App Store suggests there are many other apps from big names jumping on the iMessage bandwagon.

What’s critical here is Apple isn’t trying to replace apps with its iMessage platform, but rather is extending those apps into new parts of the operating system, outside of their app icons. And because it isn’t promising to substitute for apps, it has many more developers on board because it’s not asking developers to build for an entirely new platform but merely to leverage the work they’ve already done and the user bases they’ve already built. I’ve written previously about how much Apple has asked of app developers over recent years with a combination of new hardware and big new features for its major operating systems but, despite all that, these developers seem to see value in building new functionality for their apps to be available in Siri, iMessage, and Maps.

Apple’s vision is much more in keeping with how users want to engage with messaging in Western markets, while also embracing some elements of how Asian messaging apps are used with features like stickers. As a result, I’d argue it’s seen a lot more success than Facebook with its bot-driven vision. I’ve no doubt the enhancements to Facebook’s bot platform will drive more interest from developers but, at this point, developers can choose whether to extend existing apps into iMessage, and thus tap into the most lucrative base of smartphone customers in the world, or to start from scratch with a bot strategy within Facebook Messenger, with little evidence that bot strategy is working.