Before Mark Zuckerberg stood on a stage and declared chatbots as the future of eCommerce (and Facebook their natural champion), and before Microsoft was experimenting with how quickly the denizens of Twitter could turn its own chatbot into a sputtering fount of racist retweets, there was Siri, Apple's gentler take on automated conversations between humans and their digital assistants.
Now, it might be a bit of a stretch to lump Apple's voice-activated personal helper in with the electronic entities every retailer is rolling out today, but thus far Siri has endured as one of the most widely used digital assistants on the smartphone market. At Apple's annual developer conference in 2015, senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi claimed that users submit 1 billion queries to Siri each week.
The question for chatbots and conversational commerce is: How many of those searches are simple fact-finding missions about the weather or the news? Conversely, how many of them are missed opportunities to turn moments of product research into sales?
Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer, co-founders of Siri, are betting that plenty of those billion weekly searches can be turned into sales, and it'll take Viv, Siri's spiritual successor, to get it done. The Washington Post reported on Kittlaus and Cheyer's four-year effort to update what they saw as the failings of Siri to prepare for a world where consumers will be able to shop through their phones with nothing but their voices. In one demonstration for The Post, Viv's engineers shouted out toppings for a pizza order and instructions for side salads while the chatbot patiently took down the details - 40 minutes later, several decked-out pies arrived at their office without as much as a phone call made or a menu opened.
To Kittlaus, the path forward for chatbots on mobile devices is clear — just get out of the way.
“It’s about taking the way that humans have naturally interacted with each other for thousands of years and applying that to the way they interact with services,” Kittlaus told The Washington Post. "Everyone knows how to hold a conversation.”
Sure, everyone knows how to hold a conversation, but that doesn't mean they're willing to have them.
If anything, Viv's model for voice-based commerce resembles not Apple's Siri, but the Amazon Echo. There's one crucial difference between the two, though — the Echo turns a traditionally unshoppable environment (a shopper in a room) into one where a wake-up phrase and a few extra words are all it takes to make a purchase. Siri and Viv, however, are products of and in the smartphone ecosystem, which already has a thriving network of apps and Web-based paths to purchase. While these are far from perfect, they're just as far from imperfection, too, and the average shopper has had years to grow more and more comfortable with the ways of mobile commerce.
The point being, success with the Echo's voice-based commerce was all but assured due to its first-to-market position. On the other hand, Viv and its likely imitators have more to prove than simply that their platforms can do everything consumers want.
They have to prove that they can be more effective middlemen than the apps that consumers use now.
"Chat is a mediator, not an end point, between you and me, me and my work, me and my documents," Rajesh Gupta, chair of UC San Diego's computer science and engineering department, told Phys.org. "As a mediator, [chatbots] are just an extension of the computing platform, of the cellphone."
Viv may very well prove itself more suited to the task of mobile commerce than Siri, which Apple seems to be evolving into a tool optimized for Google searches rather than voice-activated commerce. However, just because a product exists that mimics the way shoppers can get their shopping done through the non-mobile Amazon Echo, there are no guarantees that they'll jump at the chance to shop the same way on their phones. Perhaps they don't prefer to yell out their purchases while on a city bus, or perhaps all of their information is stored within apps.
Or perhaps, in what would be a worst-case scenario for Viv, consumers don't really need this kind of chatbot on mobile. Not yet.