Chatbots are the New Webpages. Say What?

I'll never forget my first webpage. It was December 1994 and I was working in the offices of the Software Publishers Association (now the SIIA). A very energetic techie on the staff had enthused about this World Wide Web and proclaimed it the next big thing. He offered folks to come around to his office to have a look.

What I saw was underwhelming. It was a page that featured a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. That's it. No pictures, no sound, just some boring text on a white background. This will never take off, I thought. What's all the fuss? I could easily walk to my local bookstore and get hundreds of recipes for cookies without the need for an expensive computer and a huge monitor.

Well, fast-forward a couple of decades, and, of course, my local bookstore is long gone. And the WWW thing really took off. But it would appear that there is something that now wants to overtake it. It has been lauded as "The Beginning of a New Internet" by none other than Ted Livingston, CEO of the wildly popular (though often controversial) chat app, Kik.

What this new thing is, is a chat bot. So what exactly is a chat bot (also known as a chatterbot, a talkbot or even an Artificial Conversational Entity)? Well, definitions vary, but it can be described as an automated computer program that simulates conversation either through text or audio. No doubt you've received a sales call from a bot that wants to have a "conversation" with you about your storm windows or the latest Caribbean cruise offers.

But now these bots can now be found in popular mobile apps such as Kik, as well as on Facebook, Slack and the heavily encrypted, Telegram.

What is striking about them is that they can operate within an ongoing chat you may be having with a friend. For instance, say you're planning an evening out with a friend via your favorite chat app and you want to know what the weather holds in store. Simply type in @ The Weather Channel and up pops today's forecast within your conversation with your friend. Or, if you want to be clever or look funny, you can call up a joke or cat video from Vine.

Where all of this is going is anyone's guess. App developers envisage a world where you can instantly interact with the world around you. Sit down at a packed baseball stadium and order a beer right to your seat by scanning a code from within your favorite chat service. No need to download an app, enter your details, fill in the credit card numbers and wait. You summon the physical world through your digital device.

Naturally there's a business imperative to this frictionless ability to do seemingly magical things with your phone. Companies that have spent vast sums on developing their own app, only to see them lying dormant in the App Store or sitting silently on people's mobiles, now see an opportunity to get right in front of millions of potential customers, particularly young customers, in the very medium they most use -- chat.

No doubt this where future battles over privacy, in-bot purchases and other concerns will be fought out. It behooves the main movers in the industry to get ahead of the issues and figure out trust and safety issues before legislators and regulators do the job for them.

It will also make a new demand on parents to get their heads around this new development. A whole generation of parents (and even grandparents) are super proud that they have mastered Facebook and have friended their offspring. That's great and to be applauded. But watch this cute video of a teen trying to explain chat bots to her clueless parents. These kinds of conversations are only just beginning and will help to widen the already considerable digital generation gap.

We will also have to learn a whole new lexicon of terms and phrases to navigate this bot world. We'll have chat codes, similar to QR codes that will allow us to instantly interact with others or start a conversation with a bot. Or web bubbles (aka "wubbles") that are the web within a chat. They behave in a similar way to a web page, but within a one-to-one chat or even a group conversation.

In the meantime, we will all have to get used to the idea that chat is the new OS (aka Operating System) and that chat apps are the new browsers. And, thus, according to those like Kik's Livingston, who have seen the future -- chatbots are the new webpages.