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  April 10th, 2017 | Written by

Apps vs. Chatbots: The Fight for the Supply Chain Future

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  • When shopping evolved into its online form, so too did the supply chain.
  • Chatbots allow buyers to order products and services by typing or by talking.
  • Chatbots remember your preferences in order to make the experience better.

The user end of the supply chain has a huge effect on the whole thing. It’s for this reason that the current fight between apps and chatbots is so important.

When shopping evolved into its online form, so too did the supply chain. Brick and mortar shops still exist, but online shopping means products can go from the warehouse straight to the customer. Cutting out the middleman has changed the way the supply chain works. Doing so has paved the way for drone delivery, which could mean that we get our products within a matter of minutes and hours as opposed to days and weeks.

During ecommerce’s humble beginnings, no one could have predicted that this would be how things turned out. Yet, knowing what we know now, it’s hard to imagine things any other way. We can order pretty much anything online: Thai massages, local heating engineers, blue cheese, and collectible Star Wars glasses. That’s quite amazing when you stop and think about it.

All of which is why the current tussle between apps and chatbots is so important to the supply chain. Apps, in case you’ve been living in a cave, are instantly accessible internet services which you can download to your mobile device. Chatbots are a piece of technology which allows you to order products and services by typing (such as with the KLM chatbot add-on for Facebook messenger) or by talking out loud (such as with the Amazon Echo).

It’s impossible to say how exactly all this will impact the supply chain, but we can make plenty of predictions.

Each Supply Chain Will Need Its Own App or Chatbot
The internet has evolved into something which is primarily done on mobile. As this trend continues, ecommerce will need to move to mobile too. This means more mobile-friendly websites — something which some ecommerce businesses are not prepared for — but it also means apps and chatbots.

Regardless of what business you’re involved in, the end user will likely have an app for your product or service. Pizza delivery, shoe shopping, plumber booking, taxi-hailing: there’s an app for all of it. If current trends continue, it’s not hard to imagine a future where the vast majority of commerce is done via app. If that’s the case, it will radically affect the directness of the global supply chain. From t-shirts to Indian food, people will expect even more immediacy from the supply chain than they already do.

But chatbot developers disagree. Or rather, they disagree that apps create this necessary directness. For chatbot developers, the aim isn’t to make something simpler and more direct than apps—because you can’t make ordering a taxi much simpler than Uber has made it—but to make something more personal. Chatbots remember you and your preferences in order to make the experience not necessarily faster or easier, but better. Of course, “better” is a matter of perspective.

Apps Mean a Simpler Supply Chain. Bots Mean a More Personal One
One of the biggest pro-chatbot arguments (the reason why some developers think they will “completely kill websites and mobile apps”) is that talking and texting are more natural ways of using the internet. After all, language is one the defining characteristics of humanity. Pretty much everything we do, day to day, depends on language. As a result, it makes sense that we would gravitate towards something which allows us to shop online simply by talking.

Under scrutiny, this argument doesn’t really hold up. It explains the appeal of chatbots, but it doesn’t really explain how or why they could ever replace the mobile internet and apps as a whole. Talking is perhaps a more natural way of doing things, and the appeal of the personalization that chatbots can offer shouldn’t be underestimated. However, apps are super easy to use, they require little to no effort, and the appeal of that shouldn’t be underestimated either. What’s more, apps and mobile-friendly websites can also offer personalization, and they’re getting better at it.

The Shape of Things to Come
When chatbot developers claim that their product “will completely kill” apps and mobile-friendly websites, they are not making their grand predictions objectively. Rather, they are allowing their loyalty (and adoration) for this new technology to fog their judgment. A more nuanced prediction sees the supply chain advanced by both the development of chatbots and apps at the same time.

Consider this: You’re at work on Slack (an app, a mobile-friendly website, and desktop-friendly website which allows you to message your co-workers via online chat). Around lunchtime, you get a craving for tacos. You could walk somewhere, you could order something on the phone, you could order something via a website or app, or you could order it by sending a message to the Tacobot installed on your Slack.

This scenario imagines a world where apps and chatbots are used together, where the choice between the two is as seamless as it should be, and where user experience—above all else—takes center stage. Though this scenario only imagines a taco supply chain, it paints a broader picture too, where personalization, ease, and speed are rapidly increasing in order to satisfy the ever increasing demands of the digital-savvy consumer. It’s this broader picture which will change the future of the supply chain, not apps or chatbots by themselves.

Chris Shepherd is an app-developer, website designer, and the co-founder of Fixington, a service which allows customers to book a certified, rated, and independent tradesperson online— fast—and allows independent tradespeople to organize their bookings via a calendar app.