Prompt debuts “a command line for the real world”

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In a world suffering from app overload, the Y Combinator-backed startup Prompt introduces a different way to interact with services, make purchases or even control “Internet of Things” devices — all by way of text-based interface. The application, which can be used via SMS, Slack or the web, lets you text to do things like request an Uber, change the temperature on a Nest thermostat, get directions, track flights or packages and a lot more.

The company was started by Tom Hadfield, who experimented earlier with SMS-based interactions with his startup Fetch, a former TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield finalist. That service, a competitor to things like Magic, Operator and GoButler, could be seen as the precursor to Prompt, as it also focused on making tasks easier by allowing users to simply text to get help with things like buying products or making travel reservations, for example.

Fetch closed last summer after raising $3.05 million. According to Hadfield, the service grew quickly with very high retention and engagement, but the team couldn’t find a scalable business model.

With Prompt, that original idea has been transformed. Instead of interacting with a concierge-type service, Prompt offers automated assistance across categories, including commerce, home automation, information and productivity. That means you can text to order an Uber or a Domino’s pizza, get directions, check your flight, read the news or get the weather, find a business on Yelp, get a recipe or manage your IoT devices like WeMo switches, Hue bulbs, Rachio sprinklers or Nest, among other things.

At launch, there are already a ton of integrations, including Uber, AngelList, Bitly, Etsy, Foursquare, Google Maps, IMDb, WhoIs, Merriam-Webster, Hue, Powerball, NYT, Weather Channel, Wikipedia, WeMo, XE.com, Wolfram Alpha, Yahoo Finance, Yelp, Zillow and many others, just to give you an idea. Several more are in the works, including access to CrunchBase, Domino’s, Evernote, Gmail and Google Calendar, PayPal and Wunderlist.

You can access a directory of Prompt commands on http://www.promptapp.io, or by texting /list to 650-666-2299, if you want to see them for yourself.

“We learned from Fetch that when users know exactly what they want, users love text interfaces because it’s quicker and easier than loading an app,” explains Hadfield. “Like many people, I believe conversational interfaces will change the way we interact with the world around us. There’s an entire ecosystem to be built, akin to the App Store in its scale.”

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Also like the App Store, Prompt is open to third-party developers. Its Chatbot Development Kit (CDK) allows developers to build chatbots in 30 minutes with 30 lines of code. The company plans to offer chatbot hosting, analytics and payment processing in the future, we’re told.

To use Prompt, you text your query to the service. However, you have to use a specific syntax to make the queries work — just like you would if using a command prompt. (Hence the name, and the tagline “the command line for the real world.”)

For example, if you wanted to request an Uber, Prompt tells you this is the method:

@uber: Send “@uber from [pick-up] to [destination]” to get a fare estimate, and then follow the instructions to link your Uber account and confirm the ride request. Example: @uber from YCombinator to SFO

At times, using Prompt could allow for quicker interactions with various services than what’s otherwise possible.

As another example, ordering a Domino’s pizza gets a lot easier with Prompt:

@dominos large Hawaiian

Writing that in Slack is definitely quicker than having to spend minutes navigating through six checkout screens in the Domino’s mobile app.

Changing the temperature on Nest is easy, too:

@nest 73

Or checking the weather for your zip code:

@weather 94107

That being said, the inability to interact with Prompt using natural language could hinder its adoption among a more mainstream user base, even if it helps it to gain a devoted following among the more technically inclined. (Hadfield says the team is building out the natural language processing to make the commands “less brittle.” However, the service is still focused on this “command line”-like interaction.)

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In the future, the plan is to make some of its commands “premium,” meaning you would pay to add them to the service. The company will also take a commission on commerce transactions that take place in Prompt.

And the team is working on integrating Prompt with Telegram, WhatsApp, WeChat, LINE, Viber, Skype and HipChat, and — for real geeks — a command-line utility, says Hadfield.

Prompt is backed by Y Combinator, Social Leverage Group, Capital Factory and Stuart Levinson. Though Prompt is a completely new company from Fetch, all Fetch investors are involved.

The startup is now in open beta. To test it out, you can visit www.promptapp.io or text “Hi” to 650-666-2299.