Chatting via instant messaging computer programs like ICQ and IRC may have represented some of millennials’ earliest experiences of the Internet, although that generation quickly moved on to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. But today’s growing popularity of messaging apps indicates that social networks may no longer capture the attention of millenials and (especially) post-millenials and that it is in fact the comeback of instant messaging that will characterise 2016.
To be clear, the 3.0 version of messaging apps, which include the likes of Snapchat, Kik, Line, WeChat, Telegram, and GroupMe, are hardly comparable to the messaging programs of yore. Today’s messaging apps allow users to chat with multiple people simultaneously (and sometimes – controversially – anonymously), browse the Internet, play games, and watch videos, among other things. A recent report by Business Insider notes that the number of active users on messaging apps has surpassed those on social networks, making them the fastest growing platforms today, with higher retention and usage rates than mobile apps. And because they serve multiple functions, they often make apps redundant.
As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg looks to tap into a market for whom traditional social networking may be passé, he is promising to take Facebook’s messaging app to the next level with the “Messenger Bot Store,” which is expected to launch at the F8 conference in San Francisco in April. Through the Bot Store, users will be able to download programs that allow them to conduct different transactions – including making purchases and reservations as well as booking flights – without leaving Messenger.
The result: bots could eventually replace browsers and apps as they bring everything into one service. And with more than 800 million monthly active users on Facebook Messenger alone, Tech Crunch has warned that the upcoming launch of the Bot Store could be the biggest thing for tech users since the launch of the Apple Store in 2008.
China’s Tencent-developed voice and text messaging service WeChat, which already allows users to make purchases and transactions, is the forerunner when it comes to messenger-meets-virtual assistant apps. WeChat allows users in China to order taxis, book doctor’s appointments, browse food deliveries, and even to make investments and apply for mortgages (these services are currently not available to users outside of China).
Last year, Facebook launched M, a virtual assistant that combines AI with back-end personnel to deliver services to a limited number of users in the Bay area. The service, which competes with the likes of Siri for iOS and Cortana for Windows, is still being piloted with a limited audience.