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How Kik Predicted The Rise of Chat Bots

Waterloo, Ontario, is a boom town. An hour west of Toronto, the city rumbles with construction work. Even the Older Mennonites of St. Jacobs, one town over, are digging up their main street, forcing their horse-and-buggies to detour. The region’s growth stems largely from the University of Waterloo, whose intensive internship programs have made it a magnet for tech recruiting. In the ’90s the city birthed Research in Motion and its Blackberry platform, which briefly dominated the mobile industry.

Today, Waterloo is also a bot town. It’s where Kik Interactive, a seven-year-old startup with a mobile messaging app that’s popular among teenagers, began working on a conversational platform for bots two years ago — long before the idea became the hot tech trend of 2016 and the latest leg of Facebook’s march to world domination.

There’s a crowd of bot-platform contenders right now, including giants like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google and upstarts like Slack, Telegram, and Twilio. But Facebook opened its Messenger to third-party bots in April, and given its reach (close to a billion users) and its resources, it’s the odds-on favorite. The bots will go where the users are, right?

But Kik has plenty of users, as well as a billion-dollar valuation, and it sees this story playing out differently. I’ve come to Waterloo to find out why a little Canadian company with 130 employees thinks it can compete in this game and win — and why it thinks so many of the bigger players have the whole bot thing wrong.

This kind of all-purpose, intelligent-assistant role is how most of us envision bots ultimately working: it’s what movies like Her and products like Apple’s Siri have trained us to expect. Kik, however, has something quite different in mind. For Kik, a bot isn’t your automated friend, digital concierge, or omniscient genie. It’s more like the new URL, the universal means of accessing somebody else’s information or service without needing to download or register or sign in. Kik’s bots aren’t AI-powered wonders. They’re more populist than futuristic — everybots for everyman.

Populism can be off-putting, of course, and if you just scan the catalogue of available bots on Kik, with their movie tie-ins and product placements, you may recoil from the promotional vibe. Yet I find myself rooting for Kik and its populist vision to succeed against the odds, and you might, too. A world with a monopoly on bot-powered chat is one in which we’re a lot more likely to get messages we don’t want.

I drive past Pluto Day Care and hang a right at the Esso station, squinting to spy Kik’s sign. The lime-green logo is on an office-park directory, sandwiched incongruously between listings for a driving school and a personal injury lawyer.

This low-slung warren of nondescript office buildings is the kind of place you’d rent if you were plotting to take over the world and really didn’t want to be noticed. A quick walk round the back, past the hair removal clinic and the massage therapist, and I’m at the door, I think. There are a few; it’s confusing. As it has grown, Kik has oozed through this complex, adding space and tearing down walls as other tenants moved out. Now its offices are labyrinthine, a maze of twisty passages. The hallways are plastered with round Kik codes — scannable, QR-code-like chat invites, they remind me of old vinyl 45s (one Kik exec says they remind him of poker chips), but they are actually wormholes into chatspace. Scan here to join the staff Dungeons and Dragons game!

A chat code pasted on the wall at Kik HQ. Credit: Aaron Vincent Elkaim

The Kik codes are only one piece of Kik’s larger bot vision. Like its bot-platform competitors, Kik is cobbling together bits and pieces from the half-century history of chatbots, the annals of artificial intelligence, and the “internet of things” as it tries to solve a big problem: Users want to do more and more with their phones, but they’re downloading new apps less and less often.

Chatbots, according to the narrative of the day, are a new “conversational interface” replacing apps (which replaced the browser, which replaced the desktop). Since so many of us are already spending much of our time messaging with human friends, the argument goes, we should not have to leave that environment to do things like summon an Uber ride, move money between banks, or order food. We should tell a bot to do these things, and the bot should make it so.

But when I recite that spiel to Ted Livingston, Kik’s affable founder, he pushes back — not because he thinks the idea is hype, but because he thinks it’s too narrow. “We look at chat, very simply, as a better way to deliver software,” he says. “So to us, customer service and selling items on the web are interesting applications of chat — but they’re only a small subset of the type of experiences we’ll be able to deliver.”

In the bot gospel according to Kik, chat is the new distribution mechanism for all things digital — the portal through which we will access businesses, news, entertainment, games, and personal services, as well as one another. “I think the future is that every interaction will be powered by chat, in the same way that every piece of information is now on the web. It will become the operating system for society.”

Livingston’s iconic example is ordering hot dogs and beer from your stadium seat. Forget waiting on line and missing a big play. Forget downloading the ballpark’s app that you’ll almost never use again. Just scan the code next to your seat and message your order to the stadium bot, right from the Kik chat window where you’re already messaging with your friends. When you’re done, it will disappear, until your next visit. “Bots are to apps as dating is to marriage,” says Josh Jacobs, president of Kik Services, who works out of Kik’s new Los Angeles office.

Thanks to WeChat, this interaction model is already ubiquitous in China, where the bots that represent businesses are known as “official accounts.” But it took Kik a few years and false starts to arrive here, including a push to weave partners’ web content directly into chats. “We’re sitting in the next room, right over there, and we’re thinking, people don’t want to build web apps, we’ve tried to make it simple for years, it’s not working,” says Livingston. Then, he recalls, his cofounder and CTO Chris Best had an idea: What if apps were chats themselves? “It was this lightbulb moment that connected a million things.”

Two years ago, Kik started inviting other companies to test their bot presences on its network through what it then called “promoted chats.” In April, Kik launched its new Bot Shop — an in-app storefront where users can connect with new bot services (like a personal shopper from H&M) and games (like Arterra, a post-apocalyptic space adventure). A week later, Facebook announced its own new bot platform and bot store at its annual F8 developers’ conference. Kik execs insist they didn’t plan a David-bops-Goliath moment. But they smile as they say it.

About Author Mohamed Abu 'l-Gharaniq

when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries.

19 comments

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