Telegram beefs up its bot platform

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Later today at its f8 developer conference Facebook is expected to unveil a big push into bots on its Messenger platform. So little surprise that rival messaging platform Telegram has taken the opportunity to remind people it launched its own bot platform back in June 2015 — by announcing a 2.0 update to said platform today, the biggest update since launch it says.

What are bots? Here the term refers to automated chatbots that sit on a messaging platform letting users interact with a third party software program, via the familiar chat interface, to easily perform certain actions — and, crucially, do so without having to leave the messaging platform — actions such as searching for a particular URL to share in a chat, say, or asking for information about the weather or news. (TechCrunch has its very own news bot on Telegram, for example.) The user just needs to ping the bot in question to tap into the external service it plugs into.

Many bots can effectively be thought of as an alternative search mechanism that’s embedded into an existing platform and drawing on a cache of specific data — replacing the need for users to go and perform a series of external searches to retrieve whatever third party data they’re after.

Telegram’s bot 2.0 update brings a clutch of new features to build out the utility of its bot platform — including the ability for devs to build bots that can send any type of content supported on Telegram, such as documents, MP3s, videos, stickers, animations and contacts; support for location-based services; and the ability to deeply integrate with other services based on users’ phone numbers.

It’s also adding inline keyboards that can be structured to mesh with a particular bot’s messages — so users can tap on pre-determined buttons to respond to the bot, rather than needing to type out specific instructions.

And while Telegram previously supported the ability for bots to offer custom reply keyboards, such as for example with its sticker rating bot which offers buttons for 1 star, 2 stars and so on, inline keyboards take things a step further — not sending messages to the chat but supporting behind-the-scenes buttons such as callback buttons and URL buttons. The platform also now lets bots edit their own messages.

“Thanks to message editing and inline keyboards with callbacks, developers can now build interactive UIs inside their bots without having to clutter users chat with multiple messages that are quickly outdated (which we sometimes saw before),” explains Telegram founder Pavel Durov.

Telegram has built four sample bots to show off the new features: @music, a bot for searching for and sharing classical music; @youtube, a bot for searching and sharing YouTube videos; @foursquare, a bot for finding nearby restaurants and places to share addresses with friends; and @sticker, a bot for finding stickers using — you guessed it — emoji as the start point for a sticker search. (So if, like me, you find yourself overusing the tears of laughter emoji, this is one way to quickly search out alternatives… ) Telegram users need to be updated to the latest version of the app to interact with the new bots.

“These sample bots are but the beginning. Our Bot API 2.0 allows developers to create fluid and easy-to-use interfaces for powerful bots. And we will be seeing a lot of new ones in the coming months, after all, 2016 is the year of bots,” it adds in a blog post announcing the update.

How popular are bots on Telegram? The startup claims a substantial chunk of users are now regularly chatting with bots. “Last year bot adoption was driven mainly by advanced users, but now bots have gone mainstream. Over 20 per cent of Telegram’s monthly users view content generated by bots,” it tells TechCrunch.

Back in February, the messaging app announced its platform had reached 100 million monthly active users, saying it was adding 350,000 new users daily — with some 15 billion missives generated per day. So that’s apparently some 20 million Telegram users now viewing bot-generated content on a monthly basis.

What does the startup think about Facebook launching its own big push around bots? “We are happy that other platforms are catching up as it is good for the ecosystem,” it says.

Also today, Telegram has announced tweaks to sharing and previews in the app, including a new lower friction video player (with fewer buttons to tap to start watching content); easier to use sticker pack previews; support for tap and hold previews on iOS for GIFs and bot content; and a major redesign of the Telegram Android app.