Published on Tech in Asia.
I use what’s considered a low-cost smartphone. It cost me US$90. That means that I don’t have enough storage to download apps outside of the essentials – for me, those are Ola for ride-hailing, Swiggy for food delivery, and WhatsApp. Most of my time is spent on WhatsApp.
That’s why I was excited when chatbots entered the fray.
They’re automated, artificial intelligence-powered accounts that you can chat with to make decisions online. They let you do things like indicate toppings, size, and delivery address of a pizza before ordering it.
The best thing is that all of this can be done right inside a messaging app – without having to download anything extra.
The movement really took off in April when Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg opened up its Messenger app to bots. Line soon followed suit.
It was a huge deal for India, where cheap devices are accelerating the annual growth in smartphone adoption to a massive 36 percent each year for the next five years.
With chatbots, India’s millions of app-averse, low-cost smartphone users have the opportunity to do new things right inside of their messaging apps. If done right, that means more people that aren’t limited by storage or monthly data issues – and more people online.
I decided to try out a Facebook Messenger bot called Recharge Bot. It allows for prepaid mobile credit top-ups. I don’t add money to my phone often enough to have apps like Freecharge installed, so I was excited to see what it could offer.
I found Recharge Bot on Facebook Messenger and nervously said hi. It responded with a list of language options, and I chose English. Others included Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu.
Then, it asked me to enter my phone number and gave me the option to type in “share” if I wanted to refer a friend to get a discount for my next transaction. It also offered to remind me every time that I was low on balance. I’m usually pretty averse to notifications, so I declined.
After listing some options – “extra”, “full”, and “top-up” – it gave me seven different plans. I selected one and was met with a “click to pay” button, which directed me to a PayUBiz gateway. There, I had the option to pay with a debit, credit, or net banking account. I was also offered the option of using an e-wallet provided by PayUBiz, but I picked net banking.
I processed the payment and within a few seconds got a confirmation text to my phone. My prepaid balance was replenished. Easy.
That easiness is what I liked most about using the Recharge Bot. It saved data, offered to store my bank account details, and even let me set a reminder that would let me get messages via Facebook Messenger when my prepaid balance was low.
Plus, it updates fast. The startup rolled out four new languages within a month of the first release of its bot. It would take longer to do that in an app because of time spent waiting for approval in the app stores.
It also presents the opportunity for millions of people to go cashless. Srinivas Njay is the co-founder of Payjo, the startup that created Recharge Bot. He’s seen people use the bot to complete their first ever digital payment.
“They didn’t even know how to use their debit card,” he explains to me over WhatsApp. On those occasions, Srinivas chats with the user and helps them complete the transaction. “[From] then on, they just come and get it done with bot,” he says.
Teaching bots new tricks
Outside of the usual challenges – figuring out how to sound more human, finding better ways to collect information – chatbots in India have some that are unique to the landscape.
First, it’s tough for people to find bots. There’s no store that aggregates them like the iOS App Store or Google Play so it’ll either take lots of positive word-of-mouth recommendations or aggressive marketing to get them off the ground. I wouldn’t have heard of PayJo if my colleague hadn’t connected me with the founder.
Then comes competition. In India’s developer-heavy economy, it might be hard for a single bot to gain significant traction – and chatbots might turn out to be a short-lived fad.
Harsh Shah thinks the future might actually be one where chatbots coexist with apps. He’s the co-founder of Fynd, an app that helps people discover clothing in brick-and-mortar stores.
“I’m not sure if apps will get phased out, but I think different consumers will need different marketing channels,” says Harsh. “People are on apps, on the web, on messaging platforms. Why not be everywhere a consumer is?”
The startup has taken the AI from its mobile app, Fyfy, and released it as a chatbot on Facebook Messenger. The bot has time to grow and learn from interactions before a larger messaging platform like WhatsApp opens up to AI.
“WhatsApp is rumored to release its own bots by November and December,” he says. “We’ll have tons of information by that time.”
For now, the team is focused on training the bot – and teaching smartphone owners how to ask the right questions.
“You can’t get your bots to learn travel, food, and fashion all at once,” says Harsh. “The context then becomes easy to mix up. If I ask for Nike, it should just show me the products at a local Nike store. But if I add too much, it might show me its history, or how to get there.”
My first encounter with a chatbot was a positive one, so I’ll probably use the Recharge Bot again. It’s already in my chat history and it’s easy to talk to. I don’t know if I’ll recommend it to my friends – most of whom prefer filling their pricey smartphones with tons of apps – but it’s nice to be able to switch between chatting with my mom and the bot.