Facebook Just Claimed A Spot In The Mobile ‘App’ Distribution Of The Future
It’s official. Facebook released the highly anticipated Messenger Platform (Beta) inviting developers to build bots for the messaging platform at the F8 event yesterday.
The traditional approach to building technology (e.g. TV) used to be ‘’build it and they will come’’. In the mobile connected era however, it has reverted to building technologies and experiences where people already spend time. At first this meant mobile as such, which lead to deployment of over 4 million cumulative apps according to the MIDiA Mobile App Economy Forecast. But there are only 24 hours in a day and only a limited number of apps consumers are willing to dedicate their precious time to. Though time spent in apps has been increasing rapidly, the number of apps consumers use barely changed in the last couple of years. Thus Facebook now owns a significant portion of mobile app engagement. And now, instead of businesses having to compete for consumers’ time against Facebook, it will be more effective for them to integrate their offerings and support directly into its ecosystem.
Bots are the new Apps – And Facebook Is Their Distributor
Though it’s early days for bots, it is clear that they will be catching up with standard app capabilities over time. A good example of this direction is @KLM, which built a bot that is partially automatic with the possibility of a human supervisor jumping in to address any more complex individual issues. Crucially, it holds your check-in information, delays and so on, much like your current airline app currently does. In the words of Facebook staffers ‘this is just the beginning’. But perhaps the largest implication of this transition to the next generation of apps is the fact that Facebook is now fully inserting itself into the distribution part of the app economy value chain. Currently, this space is absolutely owned by Google Play and Apple’s AppStore. But their incumbent app distribution model will now be challenged for the following reasons:
- Less friction: There is much less effort involved in engaging with a bot compared to downloading, installing and launching a standard app. For 900 million messenger users this will now become as easy as looking up a Facebook contact and/or writing a message from an app they already use every day.
- Resourcefulness: Using bots instead of apps saves users space on their mobile drives, because no installation is required. This also means potential data savings for consumers.
- Scalability: The fact that any developer can now build for Messenger will invite a swarm of bot offerings, so there shall be no shortage of experiences, from niche to mainstream. If there used to be ‘an app for that’ in the future, there will be ‘a bot for that’. Furthermore, businesses already often have a well established presence on Facebook, so pushing bots will feel like an extension of an existing experience, rather than forcing encouraging users to ‘go elsewhere to engage with something else they want you to use.’ (i.e. promoting a traditional app on a Facebook page)
- Discovery: Facebook has a good chance of addressing some of the current app discovery issues. Due to the information it has about its users, it will be able to masterfully curate offerings for individuals. Facebook clearly thought about this in the process and introduced a number of ways to discover and connect with the Messenger offerings. Besides search and featuring bots this includes Messenger links (m.me/username), Messenger codes to scan, deploying the ‘Message Us’ and ‘Send To Messenger’ buttons for websites.
This does NOT mean that bots will replace apps ‘overnight’, nor that distribution channels of Apple and Google will start hurting immediately. At first we are likely to see the uptake of bots alongside apps, as users carefully dip their toes into the bot experience. But as bots get better and users get more acquainted, there will be fewer and fewer reasons to go back to traditional app stores. For example app stores will remain dominant destinations for mobile game distribution possibly for years to come, but the likes of mini-games such as @fbchess clearly show that the time race is on and Google and Apple can’t sleep on their laurels if they are to sustain their app distribution dominance in the future. Google has been said to work on a messaging platform with bots integrated already.
Facebook stressed that bots are for communication and NOT for advertising and promotion. (Though it also added it is testing some promotional content in a small user group). Facebook knows that the future of bot uptake ultimately depends on user experience and is smart to emphasise that. Until (if ever) Facebook finds a non-intrusive solution to integrate ads and promotion into bots directly, There will be plenty of monetization opportunities elsewhere, such as the likely boost on FB advertising to promote the bots via newsfeeds etc.
As much as bots will be presented as God’s Facebook’s gift to users over the coming weeks, months and years - make no mistake - this is a highly commercial strategic move on Facebook’s journey to become your omnipresent mobile life enabler and companion. It currently boasts 50 million businesses exchanging over 1 billion monthly messages with customers and is about to transform the growing ‘B2C/C2B communication jungle’ into a highly unified, efficient and money-making ‘smart-city’.