Fragmentation could be the Achilles' heel of bot technologies

Bots are one of the most popular trends in IT, but the proliferation of bot technologies has led to fragmentation that could be one of the main challenges to the future success of these technologies.

Bots are becoming one of the most popular trends in the modern technology ecosystem. Driven by popular messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger or Slack, bots are establishing new principles in user experience and user-to-system communications. However, with explosive growth comes new challenges, and the bot technology ecosystem is certainly facing a few hurdles as it transitions from early to mainstream adopters. Among the potential challenges of current bot technology, nothing is more concerning than the high levels of fragmentation in the market.

Fragmentation is a necessary evil in fast-growing tech markets. From one perspective, fragmentation is a clear sign of innovation in a particular technology space. At the same time, too much fragmentation can stall the growth in the development of a technology sector when no vendor gains enough market share to take innovation to the next level. Fragmentation is typically considered to be riskier in platform markets like mobile, cloud or bots because they are laying the foundation for a new generation of applications. This is the case with bot technologies, which are mostly delivered as part of messaging platforms. Messaging has expanded way beyond a new communication mechanism, and many experts have catalogued messaging platforms as the “third application runtime” in the history of technology.

From browsers to apps to messaging: The emergence of the third application runtime

Bots today run mostly as part of messaging platforms like Slack or Facebook Messenger. From this perspective, a messaging platform is to a bot what a browser is to a web application. If we extrapolate the analogy a bit further, we can think about messaging as a succession of browsers and mobile operating systems as the third major runtime in modern end-user applications.

This previous analogy gets even more interesting if we look at it from the perspective of the fragmentation of the ecosystem. Both the web and mobile are very consolidated ecosystems with a small number of lead runtimes in the form of web browsers and mobile operating systems. Messaging, on the other hand, was built on top of mobile operating systems but has created dozens of potential runtimes. In other words, we went from a nonfragmented runtime (web) to another nonfragmented runtime (mobile OS) to a massively fragmented runtime (messaging).

Some factors that are contributing to the fragmentation of the bot ecosystem

Each messaging runtime is a bot platform

Different from the mobile world in which Android and iOS were the only two major application runtimes, the bot market already includes dozens of runtimes in the form of messaging platforms. From global messaging platforms like Skype or Facebook Messenger to local players such as Line or WeChat, most relevant messaging platforms in the market have launched their own bot technologies. Even more interestingly, each of these bot technologies introduces user experience and communication models that are very specific to the underlying messaging platform. As a result, most popular bots are really optimized for only one or two messaging platforms and rarely cover the rest of the ecosystem.

Multiplatform bot frameworks are very limited

The obvious answer to the high number of bot messaging platforms is to create a killer multiplatform bot framework. This approach worked relatively well in the mobile space with platforms like Xamarin or React Native becoming extremely popular within mobile developers. Despite some interesting efforts in the space, like the Microsoft Bot Framework or Pandorabots, cross-platform bot technologies are still very limited when it comes to delivering sophisticated user experiences.

A.I. platforms drive a second wave of fragmentation

The fragmentation in the bot technology market doesn’t stop with messaging platforms. Sophisticated bots are highly dependent on artificial intelligence (A.I.) and natural language processing (NLP) technologies, and these are also very fragmented ecosystems. Even more interesting is the fact that most of the leading A.I. and NLP technologies in the market are produced by vendors like IBM or Google that don’t own a messaging runtime. From that perspective, A.I. and NLP technologies add a second wave of fragmentation to the bot technology ecosystem.

The flow of early-stage venture capital

Like other hot technology areas, the bot market has experienced a huge flow of early-stage venture capital which has resulted in an explosion in the number of startups providing bot technologies. In addition to traditional institutional financing vehicles, messaging platforms like Slack have started separate venture vehicles to fund companies building bots on their platforms.

3 factors that can help with the fragmentation of the bot market

Technology fragmentation should be expected in fast-growing technology markets like the bot ecosystem. To address the challenges that fragmentation poses to the bot technology market, we can borrow a few ideas from the predecessors.

  • Killer bots: Apps was one of the factors that differentiated Android and IoT from other mobile operating systems, like Windows Phone or BlackBerry. Similarly, the bot market needs to produce popular bots that improve the adoption of some platforms over others.
  • Cross-platform bot development solution: I know it sounds obvious, but the bot industry needs to continue innovating on cross-platform technologies. If the industry can produce the equivalent of HTML5 or React Native for bot technologies, it will be a major step toward simplifying the fragmentation of the ecosystem.
  • End-to-end bot platforms: As the bot platform ecosystem evolves, some platforms will follow the Facebook Messenger path and provide complete platforms that combine front- and back-end capabilities, including artificial intelligence and natural language processing. The platforms that enable end-to-end experience are likely to become more dominant in the bot market over time.

There are other interesting ideas that can help with the fragmentation of the bot technology ecosystem. While a necessary evil, fragmentation in the bot market is a multiple higher than its mobile and web predecessors. As bot technologies evolve, it will be interesting to see whether the vendors try to address the fragmentation of the ecosystem or accept it as a new reality.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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