Apple unveils Business Chat, which brings customer service and shopping into iMessage

Apple just unveiled Business Chat, its bid to turn iMessage into a communication platform that can compete with Facebook Messenger – and perhaps, make iMessage one of the main ways you interact with businesses.

The company quietly announced the service earlier this week with an update to its developer site, but few details were available at the time. Today was the real introduction, with a session at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference.

Business Chat will be part of iOS 11, allowing individuals to open an iMessage window from Safari, Maps, Spotlight, or Siri, and start a conversation with a business. Those conversations will include basic text chats, but Apple is also offering support and structure for more complex interactions, like scheduling an appointment.

In fact, Business Chat may be the most promising opportunity for iMessage’s App Store. The idea is that businesses can include some of their app capabilities within a chat. For example, Apple showed off a conversation where the consumer could actually choose their airline seat without having to open a separate app.

Business Chat will be integrated with other customer service products — the initial partners are LivePerson, Salesforce, Nuance and Genesys. In the case of LivePerson, CEO Robert LoCascio told me that businesses will be able manage their Business Chat conversations alongside their other customer service messages from within the LivePerson product.

Ultimately, LoCascio said, LivePerson’s goal is to “eliminate” voice interactions when it comes to customer service and sales. Business Chat moves the industry closer to that goal, he said — the key is that the conversations are fully encrypted, allowing companies to include “real business processes”. And since Business Chat includes support for Apple Pay, that means customers can actually browse and buy products from within the chat.

“I really think this changes how consumers are engaging with businesses,” LoCascio said.

And while much of the discussion around Facebook Messenger has centered on chatbots, LivePerson’s Rurik Bradbury argued that Apple is “focused on trying to create a human experience.” There’s the simple fact that the customer, not the business, has to initiate the conversation.

Plus, Bradbury said the launch version of Business Chat is limited to human-to-human conversations, no chatbots involved (though of course Apple could add chatbot support in the future).

Apple is now allowing developers and businesses to test and create integrations with Business Chat.