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GUEST COMMENT No, chatbots do not mean the end of apps

Chatbots are no doubt an amazing breakthrough in the science of artificial intelligence. These well-crafted computer programs can have long conversations with humans, help us find information using the internet, help us shop and even reply to messages with cat GIFs.

However, with all of the excitement surrounding the undeniably impressive things that chatbots can do, people have been making claims which range from the slightly exaggerated to the utterly ridiculous.

Forbes argues that chatbots will “make payments easier”, which might be a possibility. However, the Telegraph argues that “the end of apps is here”, which is laughably apocalyptic, while one chatbot developer claims that they will “completely kill websites and mobile apps”, which is as biased as it is ludicrous.

Chatbots are great, but let’s not get carried away. I own a marketing and digital PR company based in Nottingham, which means I spend my days helping small businesses build, optimise and promote their websites. From where I’m sitting, mobile-friendly websites and apps look like they are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. I think chatbots have a place in the future of eCommerce, but they are not the future of eCommerce by themselves. In fact, at the moment, they are mostly hype.

Great science doesn’t mean great business
Chatbots are, for lack of a better word, cool. They’re super cool, in fact. Yet their coolness does not guarantee that they will do amazing things for the world of eCommerce. Science and business are not connected in this way.

When physicists discovered the Higgs Boson, for example, it was a watershed moment for science. Yet, as amazing as this discovery was, it didn’t change the world of business. That doesn’t take anything away from the awesomeness of the discovery, but it is a fact that the stock markets didn’t react at all to the news.

Chatbots, too, are a watershed moment for artificial intelligence. The fact that they won’t completely revolutionise eCommerce, or kill all apps and websites, should not take away from the awesomeness of their discovery.

People like apps
2016 marked the first time that app and mobile web usage overtook desktop usage. This trend has been coming for a long time and it shows no sign of slowing down. People like apps and they like mobile-friendly websites. We use them absent-mindedly and without difficulty. With one tap, I can order a taxi, a burrito, or a haircut.

The idea that people will start using chatbots instead, en masse, is predicated on the assumption that people are unhappy with apps. Clearly, they aren’t. Chatbot technology is here now, but most people are still using apps and the technology remains immensely profitable.

People have preferences
Chatbots are better than apps because people prefer talking or texting someone more than using a visual interface, like an app or a website. Conversation is more natural, more human, so people will flock to chatbots as a result. This is the crux of the pro-chatbot argument.

The thing is, though, if everybody prefers conversation to visual interfaces, why are we even using apps and mobile-friendly websites at all? Why don’t we just call the shoe shop, or the airline, or the pizza place?

Some of us do. I have no qualms booking a table at my local pizza place over the phone — and doing this is just as quick as using a chatbot. Humans are much smarter and more reliable than chatbots, so why isn’t everybody using their phones to, well, phone people?

We certainly used to, but apps and mobile friendly-websites rocketed in popularity because some people don’t want to talk or text. They just want to tap. I understand the benefits of chatbots. They give people the option of talking to a piece of technology which, unlike a human, is always awake and has the ability to remember account information perfectly. Some people will prefer this method of shopping, but a lot of people will stick with apps and mobile-friendly websites. It’s all about preference.

Chatbots need to improve
Chatbots have the potential to offer a better user experience than apps, they have the potential to change eCommerce and they have the potential to be an indispensable piece of technology. However, as of right now, chatbots do not do any of that. There is an enormous difference between having the potential to do something and actually doing it.

Speculating about the future is exciting, but back in 2017, chatbots have some major issues to work out. For example, the fact that one Amazon Echo can just accidentally order a dollhouse is pretty worrying. The fact that several Amazon Echos can wind up making the same mistake because of a news report about the first Amazon Echo’s mistake being heard by another Amazon Echo is utterly farcical.

Chatbot fans would argue that the technology can improve, and I agree. However, it’s going to need to improve a lot before it becomes a serious alternative to all mobile-friendly websites and apps.

Tim Cameron-Kitchen is the author of digital marketing guide How to Get to The Top of Google as well the owner and founder of Exposure Ninja.

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