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The future of conversational interfaces

This is a collection of thoughts about the future of conversational interfaces. It will eventually become a longer blog post and I predict, amongst these other predictions, that it will be an interesting read in a few years. It is hard to make predictions in this environment, but I trust you will take these as invitations to think and have constructive chats about the future of conversations and our roles to make it a future we can be proud.

I have been inspired to finally write this down inspired by all the responses to the podcast Jiaqi Pan (CEO at Landbot.io, the best tool to make conversational landing pages) and I recorded for his #antipodcast project, which you can read more about – and listen to – via this link to the LinkedIn post. Without more introduction, let’s look together at the future of conversational interfaces.

Why do I believe WhatsApp won’t be, as many think, the winner of the conversational future? Mainly because I predict there will be a new player pushed by distractions, legislation and the arrival of two main groups of users that will disrupt this: your kids and the people who don’t know what the internet is but have a smartphone and a data plan.

This post is structured in 5 sections:

  1. What made WhatsApp so popular?
  2. Facts & figures about WhatsApp
  3. The rise of video
  4. Professional messaging
  5. WhatsApp for work?
  6. Hardware, VR, and ubiquitous conversations

What made WhatsApp so popular?

Did you know that WhatsApp started as an address book app for Blackberry and iPhone? It also featured a chat for iPhone users, but their main value proposition was to be able to share the best way to get in touch with your contacts.

Shortly after this, they launched as a fully featured direct smartphone chat app as a free alternative for SMS that allowed Blackberry and iPhone users to message each other. Each manufacturer already offered free device to device messages, but WhatsApp brought interoperability in.

Over the last ten years WhatsApp has added a number of features that made it one of the most popular messaging apps and, for many, the clear leader in the messaging market.

  • works on mobile and desktop
  • works in different OS
  • free international voice and video calls
  • text and voice messaging
  • easy share of videos and photos
  • emojis
  • GIFs
  • offline first
  • push when back on
  • read receipts (feature, also as marketing)
  • agenda updates
  • share location
  • groups
  • share contacts
  • search in messages
  • end-to-end encryption (and the PR that came from the implications in criminal cases)
  • message export or security copy to local storage or google drive
  • 2FA

While this is an impressive set of features and WhatsApp leads the conversational game in many markets, I wanted to look at the figures I could access about the business and the use of other similar messaging apps.

Facts & figures about WhatsApp

Most used messaging apps globally in different regions and countries

Let’s look at the most used messaging app globally, in regions like Latin America or the Arab World, and countries like the USA or France. While WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app overall, we will see there are interesting variations worth considering.

When we look at the global figures we can see that WhatsApp is the most popular global channel: there are 2000 millions of active users in WhatsApp, followed by 1300 millions of users in Facebook Messenger, closely followed by WeChat (95% of WeChat users are in China, by the way). These channels are followed by QQ Mobile, another Chinese app owned by the giant Tencent, Telegram and Snapchat.

Some comments about the above graph:

  • The two chinese apps have, in total, as many users as WhatsApp.
  • Telegram, a channel organizations have pushed for in the past, has a very small user base compared with WhatsApp and Messenger.
  • Snapchat follows very, very closely. This app took everyone by surprise and continues to be one of the most used apps to exchange messages. I am looking forward to an update of this list to see if apps like Instagram, TikTok or even Tinder make it to the list.

Let’s look at the United States. We usually look at this market as it is one of the markets with the most data available and has traditionally been a trend-setter or a reference. The portal Statista has this report of the most popular mobile messaging apps in the United States, in millions of monthly active users. As you can see, Facebook Messenger has more than double the number of active users than Snapchat, and Snapchat doubles the users of WhatsApp.

We will go back to US data but please check this graph for France, where Facebook Messenger is used by 58% of the surveyed, vs 38% WhatsApp. France is the 7th country in e-commerce spent, so which channel is used in France, friends, is relevant.

When we look at the Arab world, WhatsApp leadership is undenyable.

As you can see in this graph there are countries in which people are using the internet without realising it, mostly through messaging apps or social networks. When I lived in Guinea I was lucky to see the first Google experience of the community health workers I worked with. They had facebook profiles and messaged, but were not aware of how big the Internet was.

A 2018 article indicated most of Africa’s data was used over WhatsApp. It represented half of the Internet data consumed in Zimbabwe in 2019.

How different demographics use WhatsApp

This is the % of Internet users who said they use WhatsApp, distributed by gender and found in this report.

And this is the % of Internet users who said they use WhatsApp, distributed by age and found in this report.

If we look at use per annual household income group we find an interesting trend: use increases as income grows. You can see the original here.

WhatsApp has been continuously growing since 2013 and the peak in the last quarter has been huge if we look at this chart – but take a closer look: it’s a jump that happened over two years.

How often are people using WhatsApp? If we look at this graph, over 500 million people every day, globally, which is 25% of the monthly active users. So 75% of the WhatsApp users don’t user it every day.

I believe this is where you will start to be surprised. I use WhatsApp every day. You do. But 75% of the people who use it at least once a month don’t.

Ok but how often do users actually use this app? Luckily Statista has this for us.

WhatsApp installations continue to grow in some countries. For example, in this chart by Statista we can see the WhatsApp downloads on the Apple App Store over Q4 2019.

This growth is different when we look at Android devices

And based on the above, it was easy to asume that this would happen too – but it’s nice to have the stats that confirm it.

Here we can see how the installations are growing per country for iOS users (originally uploaded here)

OK and… what are all of this people using WhatsApp for? These are the reported uses (remember that these could be very different from the actual uses!) as found in Statista.

Right now, WhatsApp is very tasty because there are almost no commercial messages in the platform. As more businesses get access to the API; I predict the channel will crowded and we move our most important chats to a different channel. We saw something similar happen in SMS and email and even WhatsApp founders knew ads would pull people away from their app:

“No one wakes up excited to see more advertising; no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow.”

— WhatsApp co-founders, 2012

Global privacy concerns and governments implications in the digital world move users outside of the FB ecosystem and into national messaging channels. As a response to the voice that claim that WhatsApp is full of fake news and hate content, the platform is starting to limit the number of recipients for forwarded messages to prevent spam. Besides this I am starting to find apps that analyze groups and history are virtually ending with the false security feeling encryption gave us.

Do people trust what they read on WhatsApp? What are we using it for? It does not look very good when we look at what people say in India. WhatsApp was involved in an increase of violence in India in 2018.

This is a week in downloads in India. Chat and messaging apps are the most popular according to this article, right after Aarogya Setu, the official government app for mobility monitoring in the Coronavirus response.

This is how it looks in the United States. As you can see video app downloads top the chart, and we can see Microsoft Teams in the chart. We will talk about this later, as we speak about professional messaging.

Cross-channel compatibility becomes crucial. Facebook is trying to integrate WhatsApp, Instagram Messages and Messenger. We don’t know what this integration looks like.

The rise of video

Video is becoming very popular amidst the current pandemic, and it is the preferred method to communicate in personal and professional contexts. While Zoom leads the increase in downloads, Skype remains by far the most used app. And these numbers exclude Skype for Business!

Zoom allows chatbots. We are still to see how big this can be.

Professional Messaging

Business Voice apps over Zoom could become a huge thing for things like minute taking, analytics querying, CRM updates or creation of tasks in management apps.

Another Microsoft owned service, Teams, is seeing an espectacular increase of the daily use as remote work is forced in many organizations. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, said Microsoft Teams is not a competitor to Slack. “They have 250 million-ish Office 365 users. They just announced this massive growth in Teams to a little under 30 percent. So after three years of bundling it, preinstalling it on people’s machines, insisting that administrators turn it on, forcing users from Skype for Business to switch to Teams — they still only have 29 percent, which means 71 percent of their users have said no thank you.”

On a funny note, a few years ago Slack published a letter to Microsoft and they are actually listed as one of their main competitors in their business information, which is open since Slack became a public company. They literally wrote “Our primary competitor is currently Microsoft Corporation.”

Still looking at the last two bars of this chart (which is interesting in its whole) it is obvious that Teams is leading the market, as they have direct access to the millions of organizations of all sizes who are already using Microsoft Office.

This wasn’t always the case and it looks like the Seattle based giant speed up with professional messaging over the last years. Perhaps moving efforts from Skype for Business into teams helped, perhaps this was all caused by a raise in the number of organizations willing to give messaging a go?

WhatsApp for work?

In 2018, over 500 million people used WhatsApp for work. If you google “WhatsApp for work” you will see that most results on the first page question whether WhatsApp is an appropriate tool for work. A research from 2018 indicated 38% of professionals use WhatsApp for work purposes, and 78% of these users want an alternative.

A relevant argument to avoid using WhatsApp for work may be that non-personal use is explicitly prohibited in the Terms of Service:

Legal And Acceptable Use. You must access and use our Services only for legal, authorized, and acceptable purposes. You will not use (or assist others in using) our Services in ways that: ... (f) involve any non-personal use of our Services unless otherwise authorized by us.

WhatsApp is not made for work, and this is obvious when we see how hard it is to move information from WhatsApp to other professional. Sharing phone numbers and impact when using groups. Culturally, it is not always appropriate to ask for someone’s phone number, and some people may have reserves over sharing it in open forums. It is full of distractions and our mindset is usually different when we read WhatsApp and when we read emails. As personal and professional groups and contacts coexist, it may be too easy to send a message to the wrong group.

The UX is not tailored for integration with popular professional apps. It is not possible to share Google Drive folders, add tasks to project management tools, create calendar appointments and invites or have proper threads on WhatsApp. The lack of these features makes using WhatsApp for work an experience full of frictions.

As an alternative, Microsoft launched Kaizala, an instant messaging app for work packed with features, in the summer of 2019. The company is integrating Kaizala’s features into Teams, so over the next few months Teams will take over and become an even stronger alternative to WhatsApp for work.

Some other companies, like Guild are already offering applications that have a similar UX to WhatsApp but that are made specifically for work.

Human-Machine conversations for collaboration

I always like to point out at the millions of robots in factories out there. We need operators to be able to talk to them. There is going to be a huge player in the industrial market. My bets are on Amazon or Google, but this could easily be an auto company too.

Robots are not necessarily machines, sometimes they are software programs. Over the next years, the majority of large companies will implement some sort of Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Conversation is a great way for teams to interact with these RPAs to obtain information about the system and to collaborate with robots.

eWhile UiPath is winning the war in RPA, Microsoft is adding features to Microsoft Teams that may turn this. Anyone using Microsoft Teams can create no-code automated tasks in Microsoft’s Power Automate or other RPA tools that allow them to kick-off purchase approval processes, employee on-boarding, and other business tasks – automatically. In the future, allowing for a more natural way of training RPAs to comply with processes and letting humans ask for indicators and information about the system in Natural Language could be game changing. With Microsoft Power Virtual Agents they claim everyone will be able to create no-code agents powered by AI.

Hardware and ubiquitous conversations

Conversations in all the things

Another article in this blog discusses conversational interfaces integrated in everyday objects, so I wont go into much detail here, but watch out for conversational interfaces in our washing machines, microwaves and even toilets or salt shakers. Our cars and homes will get full with devices we can talk to and I expect this to arrive to our public places too.

I am curious to see Samsung’s products launched over the next years. They have big plans: Bixby, their smart assistant, is in millions of smartphones, wearables, domestic appliances, and cars and the assistant has a huge potential as a platform for 3rd party developer apps.

While Samsung’s sales are decreasing, sales for another asian maker, the Chinese giant Huawei, are peaking.

Huawei released Celia, their Assistant, during the past month. Celia can do life translations and many more things, and most importantly, she will be available in all of Huawei’s devices, which as you may recall are not compatible with Google’s apps (including assistant). Huawei overpassed Apple in devices sold last year.

Looking into the future, watch out for smartphones manufacturing in Africa. Rwanda’s Mara group is the first smartphone company in the continent and according to this blog post by the World Economic Forum they are not selling to the people who need cheap devices, where samsung leads at very low process. Instead they want to reach users who are willing to spend a little bit more to buy a good quality phone, and do it at an affordable price.

I have lots of hopes in African technology. African developers are already creating WhatsApp Mods (replicas) and I can imagine we will have an original app, what WeChat is to China for the African regions, very soon. 52 countries, 1.200 millions of people.

Virtual worlds

Fortnite – using a gaming platform as a virtual environment for things like concerts.

How will messaging apps adapt to virtual reality? I found this post interesting. If virtual worlds are something you are interested in, I recommend you check Mozilla’s Hubs. You can interact with your friends in a virtual world, it takes a minute to setup and it’s compatible with VR headsets. If you are tech savvy, you can easily create your own virtual worlds using another service Mozilla created, called Spoke.

Outside of virtual worlds, we will soon see conversational interfaces get a lot more human through computer generated avatars that can speak, return facial expressions and gesticulate, as well as hardware in the shape of talking heads (an obsession of ours since the Middle Ages, as I explained in my post about the history of conversational interfaces) , full size humanoid robots, and all sorts of speaking devices.

Watch out for niche channels like Twitch!

As we said at the beginning of this post, QQ Mobile is the 4th most used messaging app. This Chinese messenger has been operating since the 90s, has a desktop version very similar to MSN Messenger, and is owned by Tencent, just like WeChat.

If you are not familiar with Tencent, it is a huge Chinese company that owns League of Legends and part of Fortnite. Their online platform WeGame has more users than Steam (125 million to 200 million). A couple of weeks ago Tencent signed an agreement with Huawei to develop a cloud gaming platform and to tackle on the potential of artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented environment.

If this does not scream conversational interfaces for immersive realities to you I don’t know what would.

Neural interfaces for private conversations

One of the reserves with voice based conversational interfaces is privacy. As we need to speak commands out loud, anyone around us (and all our the IoT microphones listening in) can hear it. Alexa’s whispering mode was a big thing in the news when announced, but the biggest announcements was Facebook’s research for neural interfaces.

Technology already exists to collect the concepts your brain generates and sends to the areas specialised in generating speech. These concepts can be read by sensors (implants or external devices) that then translate it into bits send to a software. Speakers or even better, cortical speakers that don’t produce audible sounds, and instead make vibrations that can be interpreted by you brain as sound, will be game changing for conversational interfaces.

Is there an exodus away from the Facebook ecosystem? The numbers indicate so, and the reasons are mainly around privacy. Alternatives like Signal will flourish in this context.

Governments in countries with weak democracies have been increasingly blocking access to social media and messaging apps to limit opposition organization. This post by Statista deserves a review, and this post explains the recent shut downs in Guinea. I predict some governments will begin to produce their own national apps and that P2P Mesh messaging apps will be created as a way to grant communications.

What are your thoughts about the conversational future? What do you think about WhatsApp leadership? I will love to read your comments in the LinkedIn conversation, the section below, or if you contact me.

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