Telegram encourages devs to build useful bots with $1M giveaway

In the scramble to build bots that live up to the hype, messaging app Telegram has just announced a $1M giveaway to developers to try to incentivize them to build cool stuff. The messaging startup launched its own bot platform back in June last year, long before Facebook started its photocopiers in case you’re keeping count.

The Telegram botprize will not go to one mega-useful bot but will rather be distributed as a series of grants, starting at $25,000, to the bot devs whose wares impress, according to details in a Telegram blog post outlining the competition.

It adds that the prize money will be distributed “in several batches” throughout the year, with the final deadline being December 31.

And Telegram’s criteria for building great bots? Basically, be fast and be useful.

Which, at this nascent stage of the bot hypelifecycle, is already looking like a challenge. Early reviews of Facebook bots, for example, have been far from complimentary.

“Frustrating, disappointing and far less efficient than visiting the company website” was the verdict of TC’s own Sarah Perez on testing out the bots Facebook featured in its f8 presentation where it launched its big bot push. And she’s not the only critic, either.

The fast-forming suspicion, then, is that a chatty messaging interface is merely the latest disguise to cloak the unwelcome, gelatinous and indubitably familiar visage of spam spam spam.

And especially sticky spam, given how apparently difficult it can be to extricate yourself from a prior bot embrace. Invite bots into your messaging life with caution, then.

Given the risk of users being switched off bots double quick — i.e. if they perceive that inviting a robot interlocutor over their messaging threshold will merely result in a deluge of annoying upsell — little wonder Telegram is attempting to steer the conversation in a more consumer friendly direction.

“Some areas you may want to focus on: integrations, tools for bot builders, AI stuff, and natural language processing, although your bot may do something altogether different. Surprise us!” it adds.

Unsurprisingly, Telegram is also seeking to encourage developers to build bots that feel like they are native to its platform. So although the competition does extend to ported bots, Telegram stresses developers should “make sure it really feels at home in Telegram”.

“We have many nifty interface options that aren’t available elsewhere and make using Telegram bots a breeze,” it adds.

Some examples of existing Telegram bots include a bot that lets you search for related stickers based on a particular emoji; a bot that lets you search for and share YouTube videos without having to leave a messaging thread; and a bot that lets you search for classical music by keyword, and share a music file to your conversation. These three bots were built by Telegram as examples of the sorts of things third party developers can do with its bot platform.

The free-to-use messaging app is not taking any revenue at this point, and is reported to be funded by the personal wealth of millionaire founder and Russian-born entrepreneur Pavel Durov — a little more of which is now evidently going towards incentivizing developers to build bots.

When Durov launched the messaging app in fall 2013 he told TechCrunch his intention was for the app to remain non-profit to avoid commercial and legal pressure. That ethos may allow bots on Telegram to be a little less nakedly commercial vs bots on other platforms, at least initially. Albeit it remains to be seen what developers will be encouraged to build for Telegram.

Back in February, Telegram announced it had passed the 100M monthly active users mark. Earlier this month, announcing the first major update to its bot platform since launch, Durov told TechCrunch more than a fifth of monthly users now view content generated by bots — so that’s some 20 million Telegram users regularly engaging with robots.

Asked how many bots there are on the Telegram platform now, Durov could not provide a figure — saying only that there are “countless” because it’s an open platform and anyone can launch one. But he did add that “most of them don’t have many users”.

“We’ve been studying what developers were doing on our platform since its launch. So we’ve gathered some knowledge about what kinds of bots are useful and what kind of bots are not. Now we want to share this knowledge with the ecosystem through BotPrizes and encourage the development of great bots with grants and larger exposure,” he told TechCrunch.

“I’d like to see more integrations with services. For example, I’d use a bot that would forward me emails from my gmail account (and allow me to reply to them from Telegram),” he adds. “Or a bot from my bank, that would send me updates from my bank account and allow to quickly check balance. In short, useful stuff.”

Durov said popular bots on Telegram at this nascent stage are bots that allow you to find/create other bots, naming the likes of @storebot and @chatfuelbot. So at least some of the early interest in bots is evidently being fueled by developers thinking about creating their own bots.

But he added that inline bots such as @gif, @bing and @youtube are “predictably popular” too.