Slack and the Decline of Bots
“Bots are the new apps,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at the company’s annual developer conference in 2016. His company had just updated Cortana, its virtual assistant, and built a system for developers to build bots of their own.
The idea was that people would no longer have to open an array of different apps or websites to do things like order lunch or a ride, check the news or weather, or get work done. They could do all of it simply by chatting with artificially intelligent software, which would automatically plug into the services they needed.
Nadella wasn’t the only big bot believer. Three months earlier, the Verge’s Casey Newton had published a long feature on bots as the future of user interfaces. He cited the prevalence of text-based bots in Slack, the workplace productivity app, as well as their proliferation in products like Whatsapp, WeChat, and Facebook Messenger.
Fast forward to 2019, and it seems that bots are no longer the new apps. If anything, to judge from Slack’s latest product announcements, apps are the new bots.
“Nobody should have to be a specialist in the dozens of apps they interact with on a daily or weekly basis.”
At its annual developer conference on Tuesday, Slack announced a series of new features designed to integrate third-party apps into its platform in deeper and richer ways. The idea is that people will no longer have to remember the specific combination of words necessary to summon a bot in order to do things like order lunch or a ride, check the news or weather, or get work done. They can now find all those things simply by navigating through a menu of apps, which bring up windows and icons that they can tap or click on. Sound familiar?
It’s about ease of use, said Andy Pflaum, Slack’s head of platform, in a briefing with OneZero ahead of the announcement. “Nobody should have to be a specialist in the dozens of apps they interact with on a daily or weekly basis,” he said.
That’s not to say Slack’s bet on bots was a failure. Developers have built some 1,800 third-party apps for the platform, the company says. Some of these, such as Google Drive, Microsoft Office 365, Zoom, and Salesforce, are both widely and heavily used, especially by the large enterprise customers that drive Slack’s business. Until recently, many of the integrations lived within Slack messages, with conversational controls, while some required users to memorize text-based “slash commands” to summon them.
It’s the success of these app integrations, Pflaum said, that’s driving Slack to make the process easier. Users will now be able to see all their apps in a new home tab. App developers can create workflows that use graphical interfaces such as windows and menus, which Slack calls “modals.” App integrations will pop up in more places throughout Slack, reducing the need for slash commands. And enterprise apps will be able to ask for more specific permissions, rather than global permissions that grant them broad access to a team’s workspace.
Bots will “continue to exist and have their role in Slack,” Pflaum said. But the company’s research has found that “the typical user isn’t as comfortable with those, or forgets how to use those methods.” Testing of more graphical interfaces has generated “so much positive response,” he added, and should make apps accessible to “a much broader base of users.”
That makes sense, given Slack’s growth trajectory. It has evolved from a tool for tech startups and tech-savvy workplaces to one with some 12 million daily active users, who keep Slack open for an average of nine hours a day, according to the company’s data. Its current push is to attract some of the world’s largest companies, in industries such as health care and finance that have specialized needs and are subject to federal regulations.
Still, it’s hard not to see this as a blow to the once-vaunted bot. Three years ago, Slack was among the companies leading the charge. Facebook was quietly developing M, a do-it-all conversational A.I. that could take real-world actions such as ordering flowers. An O’Reilly Radar analyst called 2016 the year of the bot. Product designer and blogger Chris Messina dubbed it the year of conversational commerce.
The promised move from apps to conversational bots felt like the dawn of computing’s final era — in which HAL 9000-like A.I.s would obviate the need for keyboards, mice, and touchscreens. But limitations often made interacting with text-based chatbots less like interacting with a human and more like interacting with the command-line in a pre-Windows computer. By 2018, Facebook had shut down M, following reports that human contractors had been carrying out many of the tasks it was trying to automate. Even Microsoft’s Cortana is turning into an app.
The A.I. dream lives on, for now, in voice-based assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant, which are flourishing on smart speakers — though they still aren’t much for conversation. In the meantime, Slack is getting back to the type of graphical user interface that has served the tech industry well enough for the past 35 years. Maybe Steve Jobs was onto something after all.