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Where are the WhatsApp Chatbots?

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By now just about everyone has heard of WhatsApp. The cross-platform instant messaging service for smartphones, founded in 2009, has very quickly become a giant in its own right – quickly rising and settling as one of the most popular and widely used apps in the world and as the most popular messaging app. Used by teenagers and their parents alike, it crosses demographics and is naturally a huge market for a whole range of different Bots. It’s popularity means it beats the likes of Telegram, Kik, Line and Facebook Messenger, all of which have enormous user bases in their own right and all of which have launched huge Bot initiatives.
messenger-app-iconIn February this year, WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook and reported that it has one billion users and is worth US$19.3 billion. Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp combined see more than 60 billion messages sent each day on the two platforms, which is a huge amount when you consider it comparatively to text messages, of which 20 billion are sent globally. It’s also worth noting that WhatsApp stated in a blog post that their users make 100 million voice calls a day, so the service is certainly not only used for messaging and text communication. 

So with all of those things in mind, it’s a pretty natural question to ask – why haven’t they launched a bot store or any Bots for the platform yet? Is Facebook wanting to prop up the Bots on Messenger or has Whatsapp just not quite got around to it yet? What we do know is that Kik, Telegram, Slack, Skype and Facebook itself are well aware of the importance of this technology and are putting in enormous strides to create and refine good quality, usable and helpful bots across their platforms. So what is WhatsApp doing and can we expect to see some Bots on the app soon?

At this stage, Whatsapp is adamantly against the production of Bots on its platform. So much so that if a developer creates, or tries to create one, it’s actually a telegram-chatbot-storeviolation of their terms and conditions. When WhatsApp discovers the Bot the mobile number it’s attached to will be banned from the service. The clearest answer/hypotheses as to why at this stage, is that Facebook are intending to keep WhatsApp as a clean, simple messaging service during their current stage of rolling out and trialling many types of Bots on the Messenger platform. If they can get the formula right there, perhaps they’ll expand it to WhatsApp. Then again, maybe not. The very fact that Facebook acquired WhatsApp indicates that they certainly do not believe the platform is anywhere close to redundancy, and that they are not intending to bolster Messenger up by crushing WhatsApp down. All signs indicate that they see a place for both in the market. In fact you can even get a desktop app for WhatsApp now, making it easier to use than ever before.

WhatsBotAn example of how serious WhatsApp is about keeping the platform Bot free for the time being and foreseeable future is that they actually banned the popular and innovative WhatsBot from the service. After nailing it at a hackathon called Disrupt London in 2015, where the team created what they called “the first personal assistant for the WhatsApp messaging platform,” they quickly launched their Bot/personal assistant service to users. It worked via location data from Foursquare and mapping data to help users find places to go or to meet with friends and family. Clearly the team were well aware of the importance and significance of Bot technology, and put their minds together to produce a useful and user friendly Bot for the platform, which is exactly what all the major platforms are doing now, in correlation with developers of a similar skill set and style.
It worked in a simple way – you would add its phone number to your WhatsApp contact list and then add it to group chats. The minds that created the game came from England, Spain and France, combining their abilities and experiences to make the best possible service that they could and people thoroughly enjoyed it. Some even state that its creation and implementation was a significant influence on the overall movement. While their Bot was eventually banned and removed from the service, it was one of many indicators of the great age of Bots set to come, and in that sense it served a strong sense of purpose.

While the terms and conditions stating that the platform won’t accept Bots, coupled with the removal of Whatsbot and the focus of the parent company (Facebook) on Messenger as its place to experiment with and implement Bots, there are still rumours flying around about how this will play out. If people want platforms that have Bots, WhatsApp will surely need to follow suit or risk falling into obscurity, right? If we’re to believe the suggestions flying around, then we can soon expect to see Bots on WhatsApp that help with banking, flight booking, food ordering and overall emulations of what a personal assistant would do for you (a bit like WhatsBot, perhaps). It’s a tough call to make, in terms of whether Facebook will channel the funding into it, or perhaps have its own successful Bots re-purposed for the service. It seems likely that if they do open WhatsApp to the Bot revolution, there will probably be some twin Bots developed, and some exclusive to their own platform. For now, we simply have to wait and see – but it probably won’t be too long until there’s a clear answer.

Summary: Facebook acquired WhatsApp in February and has since funded and launched a huge Bot initiative on its own Messenger platform. At this stage they are maintaining WhatsApp as a pure messaging service. One could hypothesise that if Facebook has great success with Bots and is able to monetise them, they might allow them to pop up on WhatsApp. For now however, it’s radio silence. If you want to use or build bots and are an avid WhatsApp user, unfortunately you’ll have to cast your eyes to other platforms at this stage.   

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Tiahn Wetzler

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