Apps are dead, long live bots? Interview with David Marcus, Vice President of Messaging Products at Facebook, which include Facebook Messenger.

“There’s no longer any reason” to have a phone number

Airline KLM, French travel company Voyages SNCF and now – as of last week – even online dating service Meetic have all launched their own bots.  Everyone is talking about chatbots, aka ‘conversational agents’, those virtual ‘people’ who talk to you when you are on the Internet, helping you to browse the web or make a purchase. This new enthusiasm for chatbots is no doubt largely down to the arrival of Facebook on the scene two and a half months ago. Today there are already over 11,000 chatbots on Facebook Messenger and at this very moment more than 21,000 developers are working on Messenger chatbots.

In an earlier broadcast (in French) on L’Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) on the BFM Business channel, David Marcus, Global VP in charge of Facebook Messenger, explained the reasons behind this phenomenon, and where he sees the major changes coming.

L’Atelier: How do you explain the current craze for chatbots? After all, they’re nothing really new per se.

David Marcus: Well, it’s true that chatbots, in the traditional sense of the word, are not very new, but taking the new definition of the term, since we opened the Messenger platform two and a half months ago, this really is something new. And the enthusiasm can be explained by the fact that the platform has close to a billion users and developers are inventing new experiences all the time.

As regards the short term, this enthusiasm is rather overhyped, but seen from a long-term view it’s definitely underplayed. There’s still a huge amount of potential in the medium and very long term. Although the initial experiments were perhaps not altogether convincing, chatbots of very high quality are now starting to appear and people are responding to them. We’re very optimistic.

Could you give us an example of some compelling uses?

In the United States the National Basketball Association launched a bot which sends out the highlights of the game in video format at the end of a match. We’re also in partnership with American Express. Every time someone uses his/her Amex card, s/he receives a notification in Messenger with the name of the merchant and the amount, plus other information. When you’re in an airport, the bot sends the plan of the airport and recommends restaurants in the destination city.

In France, Meetic has launched a bot, which is already going very well even though it’s just started up. Another example is the Cheerz bot. You can print out your photos pretty quickly, in just a few steps. There’s also a whole series of news bots which relay information according to the user’s focus of interest. There’s a long list of bots that are now becoming extremely popular.

 People are now downloading fewer and fewer apps. The figures say it all. The vast majority of apps that are downloaded are opened just once.

Nowadays there’s an individual app for each service. Will chatbots complement apps or can we already predict the demise of apps – at least as we know them today?

It’ll be a bit of both. People are now downloading fewer and fewer apps. The figures say it all. The vast majority of apps that are downloaded are opened just once. Those that are not on the first page of our phones are hardly ever used, if at all. Most people are happy to use just four or five apps.

Bots offer an alternative to apps and the mobile web, an alternative to sites where you have to identify yourself every time afresh and start your experience from scratch.

If you’re a company that owns one of the five to ten apps which people use all the time, then bots will be used to complement your app. If your app is further down users’ lists, a bot will eventually very likely replace your existing app, as it will win over more users, more rapidly. With Messenger, you have the information and the context, at the right time, with the appropriate notification.

If we were to invent communications today, I guarantee that people would no longer have a telephone number.

In an interview you gave to to Time magazine, you went even further, predicting the demise of the telephone number.

Well, if we were to invent communications today, I guarantee that people would no longer have a telephone number. That set of numbers that you’re given in a completely random way so that people can get in touch with you – in my opinion there’s no longer any reason for it – or rather there wouldn’t be if we were just inventing telecommunications today. The Facebook platform has 1.65 billion active users. All these people can be contacted on Messenger. So in that situation who needs a telephone number?

 Bots could provide a real opportunity to create jobs and even create companies.

So how are you currently working with companies to help them develop their own chatbots?

We’re trying to develop a company and startup ecosystem which can deliver this service to firms that don’t have the in-house development capacity. Just as in the web era when web agencies emerged to help firms set up websites and build apps, we think that bots could provide a real opportunity to create jobs and even create companies.

By Lila Meghraoua
Journaliste/Productrice radio