About a year ago I left Google to join Slack, and I hit the ground running. The team I joined was really excited about the platform we were planning to launch and things were super hectic. We were working with partners to implement bots, deliberating if developers will understand and buy into the concept of bots, and speaking at events to introduce this notion of the conversational office.
There were early platforms, like Kik, that were also promoting bots and a few developers, like Ben Brown and Chris Messina, who were evangelizing the idea of bots and conversational UI, but most of the market was still in the “bot what?” stage. A month later, we launched our Slack Platform with more than 150 apps in our directory and opened a fund to invest in this market. Ben Brown from Howdy (our first Slack Fund investment) was on stage and announced BotKit, an open source bot framework.
What happened following that, in the past year, has been mind blowing.
One by one all the giants of the high tech industry placed their bets on bots as well, and these were big bets, with CEOs standing on stage saying that bots are the future of software. Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Oracle, and many others have joined the race to build platforms, tools and services for bots and bot developers. Startups launched bots, dev tools, bot hosting, and marketing tools. Brands, tired of mobile app user acquisition costs, started exploring bots and what that means to their business. This in turn started to bring marketers to talk about bots. Tech media outlets started dedicating sections to bots. We were all becoming bot-shit crazy!
The progress the market has made is pretty interesting. On the technology front, artificial intelligence is becoming a common service provided by many bot frameworks, including Google (Api.AI), IBM (Watson), Microsoft (LUIS), and Facebook (Wit.AI).
On the funding front, VCs and incubators are increasing their investments in bots. (The Slack fund announced in July an investment in 14 startups.) There are also good signals for revenues, as bots such as StatsBot, Kip, and Zoom.ai have already started to monetize.
The developer ecosystem is thriving, and there are tens of thousands of bots on many platforms, serving B2B and B2C use cases.
Jon Cifuentes created a map of the ecosystem in August, showing how the ecosystem is evolving.
This article is part of the Bots Landscape. You can download a high-resolution version of the landscape here.
Even though this ecosystem isn’t even a year old, this progress reflects a longer term market shift into messaging. The early stats are pretty impressive — very much like the mobile and web revolution. All the big players are leaning in on bots, and investors as well as developers are joining this movement.
So? Are we there yet?
My take is that we are still very early in this game, and there are still major hurdles to overcome. We are still exploring the best use cases (and business cases) for bots. In April I wrote, “Bots are a great hammer, but not everything is a nail,” and I still stand behind that.
On the product side, we are still defining what it means to have a conversation with software, whether it is a set of rich interactions, plain text, or both. Also, bot discovery is still broken — there, I said it.
From a developer perspective, we are still working out the tools and frameworks for bots, bot ethics, and marketing strategies. There are a lot of conflicting opinions on the use of AI in bots, as well as the relationship of bots and AI.
From a consumer perspective, while bots are well known in the Silicon Valley, bots are still far from being pervasive in every household.
So there’s still a lot to do. We need to remember it took 2–3 years before we started to see top-notch apps and way more time before we had top-notch web apps. We are in the first year of this bot ecosystem, and this takes time.
The road ahead
The opportunity for the next year of the bot ecosystem is pretty big, and we might start to see winners in a few segments.
When it comes to bots for work, there are a lot of opportunities to create the next big thing with bots that assist us in all aspects of work: HR, productivity, finance, sales, support, legal, IT, corporate travel, security, and more.
Bots for consumers are going to become more common, and we will see a lot more commerce bots, personal assistant bots, and fun & entertainment bots. Someone might win the super-bot war (super-bots are bots that strive to provide users with multiple services), and a lot of homes are going to have Amazon Echo, Google Assistant, or a competitor from the likes of Apple.
Developer tools and frameworks have a lot of potential to improve. We will have a great integrated development environment (IDE) for bots, and we will have great debugging tools for bots. AI will become much smarter this year, moving from language understanding to conversation understanding.
Another good news for developers is that platforms will enable better bot interactivity and better discovery, which will drive bot business success.
An ecosystem that works together
Looking back, one of the things we managed to get right this year as an ecosystem was Botness. Together with good friends — such as Lili Cheng, Jon Bruner, Ben Brown, Chris Messina, Andy Mauro, Brady Forrest, and more — we gathered all the platform providers, bot builders, media, and investors into a community that works together to drive this ecosystem. We work together to make bots useful all across the market, sharing best practices and lessons learned.
I am honored to be part of this great movement, and I am looking forward to another great year.