By Prashant Singh
My affair with computing started with an IBM PC running MS DOS. I still remember the seductive appeal of a blinking “C” prompt. It was fascinating: type in the right command and magic happened. Although back then, there was very little you could have done with computer that was of any earthly use. But that didn’t deter some of us. We used to spend hours typing and retyping cryptic commands like DIR, ATTRIB, DEL, COPY (later on Ls-axf, ECHO, WALL, SED, AWK, GREP in Linux).
There was something about command line that was fascinating. Something, which for some reason was missing in the graphical interfaces which succeeded them. I didn’t know it back then but today, thanks to hindsight, I can say that part of the appeal of command line was the fact that it was very raw and it was not for everyone. That was my superpower. I knew how to communicate with computer. You need to understand that at that age, I couldn’t have said the same about rest of the things, which were also appealing to me. In the years that followed, technology quickly evolved from MS DOS to Windows to Browser to Smartphones to Tablet to Wearable and now with IoT, we are talking about putting computing in practically everything. One would assume that the command line would be nothing more than a faint blip in the rear view mirror. Well you can’t be further away from the truth.
As I write this, the world of computing has gone through a generational shift. We are living in the smartphone era. Messaging has firmly established itself as one of the biggest use cases of the smartphone. Facebook bought WhatsApp for a massive $18 billion; they are still trying to buy Snapchat. Slack: A group-messaging product for enterprise is worth billions. WeChat and Lines are massive in China. A lot of VC money is flowing in this space. Last time I checked there were 50 startups trying to get a slice of action.
So we all agree that messaging is the next big thing. However what most of us fail to realize is the fact there is more to this trend than just a land grab. We are in the middle of a paradigm shift in human computer Interface (HCI). We are at the start of Conversational User Interface (CUI). As I mentioned in the beginning, the command line interface had a learning curve. DOS Commands were very cryptic and it was anything but natural for humans to operate that way. This was a big deterrent in the widespread adaptation of software.
When we moved to the graphical user interface (GUI) we made significant improvement. But one still needs to be familiar with the notation, icons and workflow. Every software had a different user interface. There were fun, efficient and sleek interfaces that one needed to learn. Interaction with the computer is structured, discreet and constrained. It is transactional in atomic unit of type, click, tap, pinch, scroll, pan, zoom, swipe etc. That’s not how humans communicate, Humans communicate in a continuous, fluid and seamless format of communication called conversation.
More about the idea of conversation: Most of us think that the only prerequisite for conversation is the shared understanding of one common language. But there is more to it. A meaningful conversation also requires a shared context between both parties (the meaning of “meet me at bank” when said in the middle of the city on a workday is different than when you say it at a beach resort during vacation). The second required thing is the ability to retain state while you move from one topic to another (Try asking “what’s the date today?” to a booking clerk while buying ticket and try doing the same with a software “?”). Many such nuances come very naturally to humans, but for machines it’s not that easy. Schematic diagram of a typical conversation processing software will look like this (source: MIT).
Doing this with software requires some serious technical chops. No wonder that the first few entrants in this domain were biggies like IBM, Google, Microsoft, Nuance and Facebook. But as it often happens in technology, the real fun starts only when infrastructure part becomes a commodity. We are now witnessing that surge where a lot of services are transforming themselves by applying CUI. Some of them pose serious threats to the business model of incumbents.
East is The New West:
The PC-first generation grew up with a mental model where every activity starts with the “Start”, and Menu options, then going to the desktop application. But smartphones don’t have a start menu. What is the mental model of the mobile first generation? If the popularity of messaging is anything to go by, then the preferred mode of interaction for the mobile-first generation will be messaging. You simply tell your machine (PC/Phone/Tablet) what you want and it gets that done. Does it sound very futuristic? Not really.
If you want to see it in action look no further than China. Look at how they are using WeChat for everything from chatting to hailing cabs to transferring money to buying groceries. In China, one App rules all. Now think like a product manager and answer: If you need to design an app that can do everything, what interface paradigm you will use? Naturally the one which is most native to human: Conversation hence CUI.
There is one subtle but dangerous aspect of this arrangement to which we need to pay attention. When you take away the complexity of decision making from a user, you also take away the choice. When user asks you to book a table for dinner, you have the freedom to use Opentable or Zomato or Reserve. This is not good news if you are Opentable, Zomato or Reserve, because they become hot swappable. By the same logic, what’s true for Opentable and Zomato in table booking is true for Google and Bing in search and for Flipkart and Amazon in shopping. When you are a commodity service hidden from the user, there is little meaning in differentiating and inspiring loyalties.
I believe that China is a petri dish of the future. People will look at the Chinese market and adopt the model according to the constraints of local market. In India you have companies like Haptik, HelpChat, GoodService and Magictiger to be your concierge for everything from a wakeup call to shopping to web checkins to restaurant bookings. They are doing it by giving a simplified and conversational experience to their users. This experience is powered by an IM interface around a cascading fallback of BOTS + Structured Inline UI elements + HUMAN Operator. On the enterprise side, startups like Konotor and HelpShift are trying to provide the messaging capability as an SDK to every app developer.
Globally, Facebook launched Facebook M which works at the intersection of AI + HUMAN and acquired a very interesting startup called wit.ai. I assume that at some point, they will open the API and make FB Messenger the next big channel for businesses to interact with their users. The revenue potential of this channel is very real. Skullcandy is already getting fantastic results.
This company has the potential to be huge: WAND LABS. Started by ex-Googlers, this company is building the concept of actionable messaging where any app can become a service on their platform. Users can interact with that app via plain text messages. Read this excellent review of WAND by Steven Levy. This startup has a platform approach, the right team and can be a game changer.
The Chinese are not complacent either. Companies like Quixey are working hard to enable deep linking in apps so that the content of apps can be accessed without having to install apps. Quixey is Alibaba funded. Alibaba has also invested in their own version of Android and a context aware location service. It’s only a matter of time when Alibaba will start leveraging them.
By any standards, these are still early days of CUI and we are yet to feel the disruption caused by it. But make no mistake, battle lines have been drawn and the bloodshed is about to start. After a decade of hiatus, the command line is making a come back and this time everyone is invited. Grab the popcorn this is going to be fun.
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Top image credit: PDPics