Uber developer experience chief predicts ‘conversation’ as next epoch in computing


Chris Messina, developer experience lead at Uber, also the inventor of the hashtag, believes conversation and messaging are the next paradigm in computing.

echoUber’s developer experience chief believes that there will be a shift from touch and app-based consumption of services, to conversation and messaging as a primary computing interface.

Speaking at Nexterday North, the ‘anti-seminar’ hosted by Comptel in Helsinki this week, Chris Messina said that there have been a number of defining moments in computing (computers for experts -> personal computers/Windows -> the smartphone -> feed-based social networks) – and said that the next epoch will be conversation-as-a-platform.

Also famous for ‘inventing the hashtag’, Messina now works as Uber’s developer experience lead, and has worked on the company’s Facebook Messenger chatbot and its integration with Amazon Echo.

Messina gave an interesting presentation at Nexterday North on how the rise in use of messaging apps is now overtaking the use of feed-based social networks, and that we should look to younger generations that will grow up with conversation-based computing as ‘the norm’, as explanations as to why ‘conversation-as-a-platform’ could well be the primary interface in the future of computing.

If you look at the development of user interfaces over time (for example, using the mouse on a desktop to touchscreen capability to ‘liking’ on feed-based social networks), Messina said that the general trend is moves towards making UIs simpler. And if conversation-based technology improves, it could well be the next ‘simple UI. He said:

You can understand why Facebook has seen this incredible rise in adoption, you can operate it when you’re drunk. They’ve gone from 100 million users, to 2 billion users, which is most of the Western world, over the last eight years or so. It’s because of that ease of use.

Something else interesting happened last year. For the very first time, messaging eclipsed feed-based social networks. Although we might have thought that scrolling through feeds was going to be our computer future, it turns out that messaging is the killer app on mobile. Although there are 2 billion people online today, there are another 4 billion people that are going to come online in the next 20 years.

You have to ask yourself, what kind of computing device are they going to have when they start? Is it going to look more like the PC I started with, more like the smartphone, or more like a room computer, or car OS, that you just talk to and have a conversation with.

The next generation

Messina said that he saw a good example of why conversation UIs could succeed when he watched Spike Jonze’s oscar winning film ‘Her’. For those unfamiliar, the film centres around a man that falls in love with an operating system – a computer that has very human-like traits.

In one scene in the film the main character introduces his OS girlfriend to his niece, who doesn’t bat an eyelid at this man having an unlikely relationship with the computer. She talks to ‘Her’ and appears unfazed. Messina said:

That’s why I think this fifth and emerging epoch will be conversation as a platform. The data is showing this. But also I think if we take a child’s mind approach to this – kids talk to everything. You can’t shut them up. They will talk to inanimate objects, they will talk to dogs, they will talk to a shoe, it doesn’t really matter. Conversation is the natural way that we interact with the world. We are negotiating meaning in-between.

For kids they have a completely plastic view of the world. This is what they’re growing up with. I’ve got a seven and an eleven year old at home and they talk to Alexa and Siri like they’re good friends. They’re growing up in this world. What do you think they’re going to think when they’re sixteen or twenty? They’re going to have a completely different way of understanding and interacting with their surroundings.


Chris Messina
Chris Messina

Messina went on to talk about a number of trends that are driving this. First and foremost – technology leaders. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, for example, has said explicitly that “bots are the new apps. Messina said:

Tech leaders are seeing the shift and realising that conversations are what are going to make technology available to a broader set of users. I think what [Nadella’s] saying is that the idea of the app, which has come out of the desktop era, doesn’t necessarily make sense in the mobile era as much. So, conversation becomes the new runtime for offering your services.

In conjunction with the investment, Messina sees the growth in messaging apps and the improving capability in machine learning as critical. He added:

I think there are two parallel forces that are really driving this. One, broadly speaking, is cognitive computing. Where computers begin to start to be able to think and reason. In some ways like humans can. It’s more human-like than human, but with deep learning, machine intelligence and computer vision, text to speech, all these different technologies coming together – computers are starting to do things that only we were able to do. That’s interesting.

The second thing of course, is that messaging platforms are in ascendence. In January of this year I wrote a blog post, declaring that 2016 was going to be the year of conversational commerce. Essentially I was saying that we are going to start interacting with brands, services and bots, in a context that were previously reserved for good people that we knew. So you are going to have services that are adjacent to people that we know well.

Uber, of course, is already playing a role in this area with its integration with Facebook Messenger and Amazon’s Echo. The focus being making it easier for users to order an Uber – either by simply asking Alexa for a driver, or ordering one within the Facebook Messenger app, as a continuing part of the conversation.

Finally, on the pace of change, Messina said:

When Facebook first put out their numbers around the chatbot platform, they had about 10,000. Three months later they have 30,000. I won’t say whether or not those chatbots are any good, but that rise in activity is pretty incredible.

The change is happening at a relatively slow pace from feed based social media to messaging conversation based social media. But as is it’s happening we are also changed and affected, and our thought patterns are being changed and affected.

As we shape our tools, thereafter our tools shape us. Increasingly the way to think about this, is that as we shape our conversations, and the messaging platforms, those conversations will then in turn shape us.

Image credit - Image of Echo sourced via Amazon. Chris Messina provided the image of himself.