It’s Operating Systems Vs. Messaging Apps In The Battle For Tech’s Next Frontier

As mobile devices continue to explore and colonize the technology landscape, their conquests are leading us to a new era, beyond search and apps.

Looking to claim the territory previously held by URLs, portals, and even search and apps, the rapid acceleration of mobile interface innovation, with messaging as its main driver, is irreversibly moving us into a new, conversation-based era.

Two Expeditions


There are currently two expeditions climbing the lucrative post-search mountain from different sides, each plotting their own unique route to the top.

Image 2.0 - Mountaintop

1. The AI-Based Ascent Of Mobile Operating Systems

This first expedition is betting on a future where all silos, whether it’s apps or websites, are connected and integrated through one overarching AI or virtual assistant. It’s no surprise that major OS guys Apple and Google, the mighty rulers of the app era, are pushing hardest for such a future since it would keep them on top of things.

The main climbers

Google has been paving away on a de-siloed future since 2012 when they first launched Google Now as part of Android 4.1. Since then it has kept making its digital assistant smarter with every update. Early this year Google announced that Now would support 3rd party apps. More recently Google announced Now on Tap, giving you contextual information related to what you’re doing in your apps.

Meanwhile, Apple is betting big on AI with Siri. At this years WWDC Apple revealed its own prediction-centered strategy with iOS 9’s Proactive.

With Proactive, Siri has become contextually aware and is able to offer users content and information based on context. Also, like Google Now, Apple announced that iOS 9’s new search API enables deep linking into apps to surface content from 3rd party apps.

Other contenders

Amazon Echo, Microsoft’s Cortana, The Windows Phone home screen with its interactive live tiles, Microsoft Arrow Launcher, Pebble Timeline (and Apple Watch Time Travel), and Yahoo’s Aviate are all designed with a similar vision.

“Think about how much your phone understands about you and what happens when that context becomes part of the search experience. The future of search is contextual knowledge.” – Marissa Mayer

Most categorize your apps and show them on your homescreen when you need them, based on the context. All aim to design a future where a user is served the right information when that user needs it.


To get a better idea of how we will interact with these virtual assistants, there’s a great article on the blog that lays out in detail how a stream of relevant, actionable notifications can be seen as the beginning of the end for apps as destinations.

The article describes in detail how notifications have evolved over time and how a stream of contextual, personalised cards on your homescreen are the future of the web.

Both the Android and iOS notification panels now support rich actionable notifications. Also Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook embed actionable content in cards. At the same time wearables like the Apple Watch are helping push the market from notifications as signposts to functional notifications – or cards – that essentially are the app.

2. Messaging Apps Blaze Their Own Trail

The second expedition in the race to the highly lucrative top of the post search & app mountain are the leading messaging apps.

Climbers in this expedition – WeChat, Facebook, Line, and Snapchat – are out to own the entire smartphone Internet experience through ‘platformization’. They’re looking to bypass websites and apps altogether by rolling up as many functionalities in the messaging experience as possible.

In particular the Chinese WeChat has been leading the pack with their aggressive bundling strategy. On WeChat’s semi-open platform developers can build their own sites and users can read news, book taxis, shop at e-commerce stores, pay bills, and order take-out food, among others. All without having to leave the app.

WeChat dominates in China, but Line is paving the way to become the next gateway to the web in its respective markets. Although not as big of an ecosystem as WeChat, it’s more closed network allows users to download Line-focused utility apps, play social games with Line contacts, and check restaurant listings, among others.

Facebook & Snapchat

Though the major messaging apps in the West are behind compared to their Asian counterparts, both Facebook Messenger and Snapchat have shown signs of their own platform aspirations. Facebook is in a luxury position with more than one iron in the fire. It can experiment on its Messenger users and roll out what works on its WhatsApp user base.

Facebook Messenger’s early platform efforts are focused on third-party content sharing, customer/business communication, and more recently P2P payments. Interestingly, different from WeChat and similar to the ‘de-silo strategy’ of Google Now and Apple’s Siri, Messenger also “provides shortcuts to apps people have already installed, as well as new apps they might be interested in trying.”

At the end of last year Snapchat showed their platform ambition when they rolled out the ability to send money to friends through ‘Snapcash’, shortly followed by the launch of Discover. Snapchat is now gradually growing into a media and entertainment focused platform, way beyond a messaging app.

The Brave Climber Without Supplemental Oxygen

Another contender and arguably the one with the most original strategy in the messaging apps expedition is Telegram. Though a relatively small user base they’re worth mentioning as the Telegram Bots Platform is the most decentralised and open approach from the pack and it’s brilliant (or I should say revolutionary?).

Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov

Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov

Telegram has opened up its API to allow 3rd party developers create so-called ‘Bots’ –  that often have AI features – that users can operate and communicate with. Telegram’s description of what Bots can do: “They can do anything – teach, play, search, broadcast, remind, connect, integrate with other services, or even pass commands to the Internet of Things.”

Basically Telegram’s strategy is to take the strongest part from Expedition Mobile Operating Systems – the virtual assistant -, open it up to 3rd party developers, and elegantly integrate it with their messaging interface.

Which Expedition Will Reach The Top First?


Despite the number of explorers racing along different planned routes, messaging apps may have the best chance of planting the first flag at the lucrative top of technology’s consumer mountain.

With their huge, highly engaged and networked user base as a solid foundation, messaging apps like WeChat and Facebook Messenger have demonstrated their ability to capture more and more task oriented activities, gradually bundling the web without scaring off its users.

Being able to leverage a huge networked user base – the global contact list – might prove to be a critical strategic advantage.

Why? Because for Apple and Google to capture the intent oriented activity will be a much steeper hill to climb. Their notification panel or activity feed is primarily designed around passive activities. And though Apple and Google might think otherwise, the notification panel is unlikely to transform into an engaging enough platform that can also serve goal oriented activities and habits.

Image 11.0 - Apple Google Uphill battle


To catch up they need to build a mobile social destination with a similar user base and high engagement as the leading messaging apps. A place where people go to out of habit multiple times a day because their social network is there. The home screen, notification panel, activity stream, or voice operated virtual assistant are not cutting it.

The challenge that Apple and Google face is that building social and engaging platforms from scratch is not in their DNA. Ping and Google+ come to mind. Hangouts is not exactly killing it either.

So as messaging apps are rolling up more and more activities in their existing interface – while leveraging the notification panel with rich and actionable notifications – Apple and Google will have to drastically rethink their strategy to get into a better position to grab a slice of the post-search pie.

What Apple & Google Can Do

To stay on top of things there’re several things Apple and Google can do besides expanding on their notification panel initiatives.

Android M with Google Now’s “on Tap” integration with Hangouts is a step in the right direction. Google Now can scan and understand text, conversations, and images. For example it tracks words like “what”, “who”, and “where”, and offers shortcuts to information when you’re about to look it up.

Though still mostly voice-focused on mobile, Apple has demonstrated a similar ‘conversational AI’ vision for messages on the Watch. Like Google Now also Siri can analyse your conversations and gives you a list of smart replies to tap.

Image 12.0 - Apple Watch Quick Boards Demo

Marrying virtual assistants with conversations might be the future, but a vital component to make this work — a large active and networked user base — is missing. It’s great to be able to understand conversations, but it doesn’t mean much if nobody is talking.

The obvious way to solve this obstacle would be to buy into a networked user base. Looking at the playing field the most logical candidate would be Snapchat. But also Kik, Tango, and even Twitter are relevant acquisitions targets.

Apple and Google could also impose a toll on other messaging platforms through leveraging their ultimate gatekeeper position. However such a browser war-esque strategy is unlikely to be effective. Firstly as a result of their strong network effect the leading messaging apps already have a huge global reach. Secondly both iOS and Android have their respective messaging apps preinstalled on hundreds of millions of devices without much impact.

The View From The Mountaintop 


As operating systems will find it hard building an engaging user base, messaging apps like Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat are in the best position to first reach the top of post-search-’n-app-mountain.

Image 13.0 - Messaging Apps To the Top

Now lets see what a summit occupied by messaging apps would look like.

The Conversation As The Interface

The idea of messaging being “the new face of search” as Alex Iskold describes it, is picking up speed lately. Assistant-as-apps such as Magic, Cloe, Operator, and Luka are popping up like wildflowers. Each trying to bank on a this new frontier that’s commonly referred to as ‘conversational commerce’ or ‘invisible apps’.

There’s several reasons behind this trend picking up. Iskold argues that with messaging, the perfect format for quick and fun conversations, “We created a new way to ask questions, and receive an answer via computer that is a lot closer to how people do it in real life.”

Nir Eyal attributes the new wave to the familiarity of the messaging interface: “We already know how to chat, so making requests is easy.”

Even though apps like Operator, Magic and Cloe give us a glimpse into the future, their weakness is that you still have to download yet another app to use them.

Simultaneously, Facebook is working on a similar future. In January this year they acquired, a speech recognition startup developing an API for building voice-activated interfaces. More recently The Information reported that the company is working on its own virtual assistant, referred to internally as “Moneypenny”.

What would happen if a Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp would merge a Siri-like virtual assistant with their messaging experience? And what would such an implementation look like?

The most obvious implementation would be – like Google Now in Hangouts – an overarching AI scanning and understanding all your conversations, offering helpful suggestions and shortcuts when you need them.

That sounds appealing, but there’s a different, better implementation. The Telegram implementation.

The Telegram Implementation

If you haven’t already, I urge you to check out Telegram’s Bots platform.

The implementation is incredibly simple and frictionless in multiple ways. You can start a chat with a Bot just like you would with a real person – all Bots appear in Telegram’s global username search. Interestingly being able to find and add Bots from the global contact list, makes the contact list makes it feel a lot like some sort of app store.

You can also add Bots through unique urls like ‘’. If you have Telegram installed clicking on a bot-url takes you straight into the conversation. It’s an almost magically short flow.

Bots are not only easy to install, they’re simple to communicate with too. Telegram in their bot-revolution announcement: “In most cases you won’t even have to type anything, because bots will provide you with a set of custom buttons.” So rather than having to type Telegram offers developers the option to let users tap through a list of relevant multiple choice options instead. Another sign that the keyboard is dying.

Some Telegram Custom Keyboards

Some Telegram Custom Keyboards.

Bots like iCliniq Medical Advice (@icliniqbot) and Taylor (@nomadbot) demonstrate that also on the developer side Bots are relatively easy to set up. Both offer a custom keyboard with predefined reply options that mimic the navigational structure of the website or app the Bot is based on. The similar data structure makes it incredibly easy to get started.

The Virtual Assistant Revolution

Telegram’s open bots integration is interesting precisely because it’s strikingly similar to when Apple first allowed third party developers to build apps on its platform.

Just imagine if a Facebook Messenger – that already has payment capabilities – or WhatsApp would do the same. What would happen if they opened up their API and allowed third parties to build assistants on their platform?

Imagine opening a chat in WhatsApp and asking Hipmunk to book you a flight through a few taps and messages.

Or maybe create a group chat and add the Hipmunk virtual assistant, SkyScanner assistant, Kayak assistant, Delta Airlines assistant, and a bunch of other airline assistants and let them make you their best offer.

If Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp would roll out such an open virtual assistant implementation it would be Google’s and Apple’s worst nightmare. It would mean the beginning of the end for the guardians of the app era.

While you’re at it why not create a group chat with Uber, Lyft, and a bunch of other private driver assistants. Just message your destination and receive a booking confirmation notification from whoever offers the best price or whoever can come pick you up first.

No more endless tapping and switching between websites or apps, each with their own interface to get used to. Just send a few messages or even better, with the custom keyboard, just tap a few buttons. All with a friendly human-like interface, the conversation.

The same goes for buying anything, getting information, and almost all other transaction based actions. As Techstars’ director Iskold has written, people would think of assistants as “your command and control for all things you need – tasks, purchases and of course good old search.”

If Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp would roll out such an open virtual assistant implementation it would be Google’s and Apple’s worst nightmare. It would mean the beginning of the end for the guardians of the app era.

Transactions At The Summit 

As WeChat has demonstrated in China with their semi-open platform strategy, messaging apps with a payment service like Tenpay slapped on have the ability to overcome the ‘just a social app’ perception barrier and become the main gateway to the world’s information.

Especially in developing markets where millions of people come online for the first time with their smartphones, the lines between apps and messages are blurring. Bypassing apps and search, messaging apps have essentially ‘become the Internet’.

In the West, Snapchat and Facebook are in the best position to replicate what WeChat has done in China. Especially Facebook, with two massive and growing messaging user bases, would be foolish not to borrow pages from WeChat’s aggressive bundling strategy.

But Facebook should also take a close look at Telegram’s more open implementation of virtual assistants.

Imagine the world’s largest messaging app hosting an ecosystem of thousands of third-party virtual assistants. With payments already in place Messenger could easily take a cut of every transaction taking place on its platform. From taxi and restaurant bookings to buying furniture, groceries or other any other online purchase.

This may be Facebook’s biggest opportunity yet to evolve from an ad-driven platform and become the world’s largest payment provider.