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Messaging as a Platform:
The State of Human to Machine Communications

Conversational user experiences, in the form of chatbots and voice interfaces, are overtaking many of the traditional ways in which we interact with machines.

Toby RuckertToby Ruckert
CEO, UIB

Originally published on the author’s LinkedIn profile.

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Since the rise of computers, human-machine interfaces typically had some form of Graphical User Interface (GUI) which enabled direct (if limited) interaction with devices and their programs, for instance via software installs, mobile apps, and web-based applications such as Software as a Service (SaaS). No matter how “beautiful” the respective interface, this GUI is now more and more replaced by a Conversational User Interface (CUI).

Conversational User Interfaces – Text, Voice, and More!

These CUIs come in many shapes:

Other still evolving interface styles are less text- and voice-driven, and therefore limit the messaging element to certain basic functions such as taking photos with the blink of an eye (smart glasses or smart cameras such as Blincam can do that today) but will eventually allow for richer interaction gestures (see project Soli). When coupled with an input-output feedback loop, so-called bionic lenses also hold a promising future.



The most futuristic (and also the scariest) conversational interfaces, however, are possible once the boundaries of humans and machines merge. Neuralink, a startup developing brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers, is one such example. An interesting concept which allows humans to interact silently and without any brain links, eye movements, gestures, and/or text/voice interactions, yet allowing machines to “understand us," is being developed at MIT's "AlterEgo" project.

Messaging as a Platform – Facebook, Google, SMS, and Apple

The overall trend of "messaging as a platform" replacing traditional UX/UI elements such as apps, switches, and buttons in human-machine interaction has become unstoppable. Facebook Messenger alone reported 300,000 monthly active bots on its platform in 2018 and had opened up WhatsApp's Enterprise API with a few selected partners this year (full disclosure: my company UIB is one of them).

Meanwhile, Google announced that it is retiring several of its messaging-related services (Google+, Allo, and Hangouts are just the first victims) and plans to consolidate them under its Android-based "Messages" app, using the acquisition of Jibe which is aimed towards developing a Telco-led, RCS messaging standard.

RCS (supported by the GSMA) is deemed to be the successor of SMS and given that in the US alone, SMS-based text messaging is still one of the primary forms of electronic communications, it holds a lot of potentials – especially when combined with the features that RCS promises and good marketing. The challenges with RCS, however, will be: 1) who all adopts it (e.g., carriers, handheld manufacturers) and 2) whether it can set itself apart from SMS as a communication channel – which in many countries has become synonymous with either spam, seldom-used services such as OTP codes, or in banking.

One of the big questions lying ahead is Apple. Currently, iMessage has no public messaging API for developers, but it's well integrated with the iOS "Messages" app which serves as a unified inbox for both SMS and iMessage within the wider Apple ecosystem. Apple also has Siri, so if it allowed developers to build "Skills" with Siri (as Amazon did with Alexa) and opened up iMessage for chatbot development (as Facebook did with WhatsApp), it would have an immediately formidable platform for all things CUIs, even though the HomePod still has just 6% market share, despite growing sales.

The Race is On: Smart Speakers and Consumer Privacy

Undoubtedly the market leader in voice-based conversational messaging, Alexa has been embedded into more devices in 2018 than any other smart speaker. Amazon's strategy is clear – be in every kitchen and living room and bedroom of consumers globally – and has extended its Echo product range significantly by creating different form factors and partnering with unlikely allies to realize that goal. But Amazon has problems too:

Worldwide Smart Speaker Installed Base

Source: https://www.canalys.com/newsroom/smart-speaker-installed-base-to-hit-100-million-by-end-of-2018

The real question for voice-based conversational messaging contenders is: what will happen when their (current) key industry partners, major brands and appliance manufacturers such as Bosch, Siemens, Samsung, Electrolux, Miele, Honeywell, GE, Haier, LG, Fisher-Paykel, Whirlpool, and others realized that their own customers' conversational data could be used to grow their new biggest competitors?

Amazon already bought Blink, Ring, and a bunch of other companies making smart home gadgets. It also launched its own range of connected devices such as a smart plug and a microwave oven, effectively entering the smart home space as a manufacturer and not just a technology facilitator. And with its investment in a home builder startup, it has made clear that it wants Alexa to be the operating system for our lives.

Despite the rapid rise of conversational (voice) interfaces, it is clear that a combination of written text and spoken words will be the experience end users seek. People will use what is most convenient “ at the moment” to get the job done – both in the form of oral and written (text) conversations. While driving or cooking, for instance, a smart speaker is a great help, but in a public area, no one would tell their credit card details aloud, even at home, who wants to shout with their vacuum cleaner when having guests over. A combination of chatbots for screen-based text and visual interaction and digital assistance for hands-free audio interaction works best.

The biggest overall concern with digital assistants is consumer privacy. It's only a matter of time before we see more breaches of consumer confidence and trust, as we did in 2018 when Alexa “listened in” and forwarded private conversations by sheer accident. This is not an Amazon-specific problem; all voice-activated devices have it. Contrary to messaging apps, smart speakers are designed to be “always listening," and anything else would simply make them – well – less smart.

The Race is On: Smart Speakers and Consumer Privacy

Security and Encryption

How secure are CUIs, and are some more secure than others? Widely-used messaging apps with strong encryption such as Signal, Wire, Threema, and Telegram continue to grow in popularity. Edward Snowden endorsed Signal, which received a massive cash injection from Brian Acton (one of the former Co-Founders of WhatsApp), and Telegram raised even bigger funds and made news in 2018 with an ICO that was eventually shut down before it was even made fully public.

Signal: @signalapp.

— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) April 17, 2018

But almost all of the most popular chat apps offer strong encryption and security features. The most popular consumer messaging app, WhatsApp, is now by default encrypted end-to-end and is using protocols and technology which was developed by Open Whisper Systems (the parent company behind Signal).

The real question behind the security angle, however, isn't just consumer privacy rights. It's when, not if, those consumer channels will enter enterprise software and replace the GUIs of enterprise software and apps with CUIs.

Consumer Channels Add Productivity and Innovation to Enterprise Software

The world's production, logistics, and supply chains are powered by – and people's operational, marketing and sales productivity is accelerated by – enterprise software from leading providers such as SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce, Workday, IBM, Oracle, and others.

Long ago, they realized the importance of CUIs as a core asset for their business. To increase the value, they deliver to their customers; they have invested heavily in building the intelligence behind conversational user experiences in the enterprise software domain, either by developing their own IP or by pursuing an aggressive M&A strategy.

Technologically they are focusing on deep tech AI (Artificial Intelligence) and machine learning (ML) services such as understanding voice (e.g., Microsoft's Cortana and Nuance's speech recognition), text via Natural Language Processing (NLP), such as IBM's Watson and images using visual recognition engines in the form of Vision API's from Google, SAP, and others.

“Bots are the new apps.”
– Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft

Looking at the success of Slack as channel powering enterprise communication, it's become obvious that enterprise software will eventually adopt the success of consumer-related conversational user interfaces as well.

"User interfaces will merge...in the case of millennials – if the user interface between a corporate chat app looks different to say a FB Messenger or a WeChat, adoption drops. Enterprise software will have to look like the consumer type if it wants to succeed."
– Ferdz dela Cruz, CEO Manila Water

It's just so much faster to tell a digital assistant or a chatbot to create a purchase order in a quick written or voice format, rather than having to click through a bunch of screens. It's also simply more fun. But which of the most popular consumer channels will enterprise software adopt?

The answer will be one of policy. Today, it's mostly only iMessage, Slack, and Microsoft Teams which are "officially" allowed in certain enterprises, but there is little (or no) doubt that this will change quickly. In Asia for instance, the dominance of chat apps at work is simply overwhelming. Ever tried to do business in China without WeChat or DingTalk, in Japan and Thailand without Line, in Korea without Kakao, the Philippines without Viber and in Singapore without WhatsApp? It simply doesn't happen anymore.

“Trust is the ultimate human currency.”
– Bill McDermott, CEO SAP

Companies have to be where their customers are, not the other way around. And people are hooked on messaging, everywhere, all the time. Therefore enterprise software – in addition to incorporating elements of CUIs – will adopt consumer-friendly messaging channels to inspire employees with new, innovative ideas, better productivity, customer loyalty, and critically, to discover powerful new use cases and business opportunities which traditional enterprise software doesn't easily unveil.

To Sum It All Up

Messaging as a platform, and CUIs in particular, have reached an inflection point where they've become relevant across consumer and enterprise channels and have started to provide tangible results to businesses and end users, especially now that the hype cycle has moved on. They will continue their rapid growth both in B2C as well as in B2B environments and form a basic framework of collaborative innovation between humans and machines – "when the interface disappears, ideas are born."

Links
1.    https://www.cnet.com/news/blincam-attaches-to-your-glasses-and-lets-you-take-pictures-by-blinking/
2.    https://atap.google.com/soli/
3.    https://blog.google/perspectives/aparna-chennapragada/google-lens-one-year/
4.    https://www.neuralink.com/
5.    https://www.media.mit.edu/videos/fi-alterego-2018-04-04/?autoplay=true
6.    https://venturebeat.com/2018/05/01/facebook-messenger-passes-300000-bots/
7.    https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6480769443780706304/
8.    https://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-is-shutting-down-google-admits-low-consumer-adoption/273113/
9.    https://blog.google/products/messages/latest-messages-allo-duo-and-hangouts/
10.    https://www.pocket-lint.com/apps/news/google/146443-google-wants-to-officially-ditch-hangouts-for-rcs-messaging-in-2020
11.    https://venturebeat.com/2018/02/23/probeat-googles-rcs-business-messaging-push-is-too-much-too-early/
12.    https://www.gsma.com/futurenetworks/rcs/
13.    https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2018/08/02/amazon-echo-google-home-installed-base-hits-50-million-apple-has-6-market-share-report-says/#909cb95769c2
14.    https://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-portal-smart-speaker-alexa-2018-10
15.    https://uk.pcmag.com/why-axis/95245/how-many-alexa-skills-do-you-use
16.    https://www.globalme.net/blog/language-support-voice-assistants-compared
17.    https://www.canalys.com/newsroom/smart-speaker-installed-base-to-hit-100-million-by-end-of-2018
18.    https://blinkforhome.com/blogs/blink-home-security-blog/breaking-news-blink-has-been-acquired-by-amazon
19.    https://ring.com/
20.    https://techcrunch.com/2018/09/20/amazon-launches-an-alexa-smart-plug/
21.    https://www.theverge.com/2018/9/20/17882140/amazon-basics-microwave-alexa-2018-smart-features-price-release-date
22.    https://www.forbes.com/sites/lauraheller/2018/10/01/amazon-invests-in-home-builder-as-smart-home-dominance-deepens/#707a4d6e7964
23.    https://www.theverge.com/2018/9/27/17911300/amazon-alexa-echo-smart-home-eco-system-competition
24.    https://chris.com/
25.    https://www.bosch.com/stories/roxxter-mykie/
26.    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/25/business/amazon-alexa-conversation-shared-echo.html
27.    https://www.newsweek.com/bad-news-fbi-edward-snowdens-favorite-chat-app-signal-just-got-50m-funding-816035
28.    https://www.recode.net/2018/5/2/17311988/telegram-ico-public-sale


About the Author

Perpetual inventor, classical pianist, and successful serial entrepreneur Toby Ruckert is the Founder and CEO of leading intelligent Internet of Things (IoT) messaging company UIB.

Born in Germany, Toby studied music in Stuttgart while founding two IT companies. In 2003, he immigrated to Waiheke Island in New Zealand before moving to Singapore in 2014 where he now lives. Toby is passionate about leveraging technology to empower people to regain control of their digital lives. He believes new innovative solutions are needed to help us to realize the importance of our attention and then manage it to achieve our goals and reach our full potential.

Toby is a popular speaker at leading technology conferences around the world on topics including the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, entrepreneurship, business philosophy and creating a culture of innovation.

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