Your phone right now probably contains anywhere from 500 to 5000 contacts. Some of these people you haven’t interacted with for months, possibly years, but you keep them in your phone on the off chance you may need to in to future. There is no additional cost to keeping them, after all. Your address book is digital and easily navigable via search. You probably already have your favorite contacts saved for easy access, so there is no real need to venture into that long list anyway.
Now compare that to the list of apps you currently have installed on your phone. Four screens? Five? How many of these do you use regularly? And how many are taking up room, taking up precious storage space and vying for your already saturated attention.
The way that we currently interact with software, especially on a phone, is not scaleable. Requiring people to install an app every time they want to use a new product is not only tedious, it’s severely short sighted. We’ve reached peak app.
Yet, I would not say the same thing for your address book. Sure, it could probably do with a clean out now and then, but the reality is you could have tens of thousands of contacts and it would never really impact your day-to-day usage of your phone. This is where I would love to see the future of service interaction. No custom visual interface or pretty animations, just a simple conversation with a service, stored as a contact on your phone.
This isn’t an entirely new concept; there are already a number of services taking this approach. Digit is one that I have been using for a while and is a perfect example of how simple such conversations can be. Every day I receive a text from Digit telling me what my bank balance was yesterday and what it is today. I can send a simple reply, like “recent”, to see a list of deposits and withdrawals, or “why” to see why my balance went up or down. No login, no password, no need to learn a new UI for a specific service, and best of all, no app icon taking up space on my home screen. Everyone knows how to use text messages, and all mobile phones support them.
Poncho is another service that relies on text messages. Every morning and afternoon I get an update telling me what type of weather I should dress for and the status of the train service. Unlike Digit, this is a simple push notification in text message form, but there is an opportunity here for a much more engaging conversation with the service. I’d love to be able to ask Poncho questions such as “Next train”, “tomorrow’s weather” or more ambitiously, “what should I pack for my trip to San Francisco next weekend”.
Facebook’s recent Messenger for Businesses announcement looks to be trying to capitalize on this type of interaction by making Messenger the center of your conversation with products and services. Being an app, Messenger can offer a richer visual interaction than SMS. The flip side however is that by engaging with a service via text message, you are able to access something that no third party product can at this point: OS-level voice control. When a service is a contact in your address book, Siri and Google treat it as just that. “Ask Poncho what I should pack for my trip to San Francisco this weekend” or “Ask Digit recent” can be done without needing to unlock your phone or even look at it.
Of course, there are many products and services that are always going to require an app, or at least some type of visual user interface in order to be utilized efficiently. What excites me is thinking about when such an interface is required, as opposed to assuming that always it will be.
It may be a little while until we’re talking with our computers as Theodore does with Samantha in Spike Jones’ Her, but if it means one less app to install and that we’re looking at our phones less frequently, then I believe it’s a conversation worth having.