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Off with their heads! A conversational revolution in enterprise apps

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 3, 2017
Conversational computing means you won't interact directly with enterprise apps - this headless future heralds a revolution in how they're architected

Heads of earthenware dolls on plate © Yakov -
A huge and largely unheralded revolution is going to fundamentally change how we interact with enterprise applications over the next two to three years — and will radically change how they're architected over the next decade or so. It's going to take most people by surprise, not because they don't see it coming, but because they underestimate how much of a transformation it represents.

I liken this change to the advent of cloud computing, which started out two decades ago when organizations started racking commodity PCs as servers in data centers to achieve economies of scale in the new architecture of web applications. A big obstacle was that PCs at the time were designed to work with keyboards and monitors. It was quite an important breakthrough when people started to design something they called a 'headless server' — a PC that could operate without an attached keyboard and screen.

Now look how far we've come since those days. We've gone from individual PCs to blade servers to virtualized instances to containers and now even serverless computing. Servers started out merely headless but soon gave up other components and eventually became entirely virtual containers. Few of us even think about their disembodied existence today in some faraway data center in the cloud.

Conversation is the new interface

We're at the start of a similar transformation today in the physiology of enterprise applications. Thanks to the rise of AI-powered voice interfaces and messaging chatbots, conversation is becoming the new frontier of how people interact with computing.

At first glance, this hardly seems revolutionary. We're just adding a new option alongside our existing mobile and web interfaces. Now we can access enterprise applications by saying 'Alexa' or 'OK Google' into our phones or a smart speaker, or by calling up a chatbot in Slack, Skype, or some other messaging platform.

What makes this significant is that we can get a response from the application without ever having to leave the conversational layer — and we can converse with multiple applications all from the same platform. Previously, we had to actually visit each individual application to find information or complete an action. But now all of that workflow can happen in the messaging layer — and the underlying applications become 'headless' as those individual screens and command lines we had to use before now become redundant.

People in the know believe this is an extremely significant step. Chuck Ganapathi, CEO of Tact, whose digital assistant uses AI and messaging to automate workflow for salespeople, says it's the biggest change in how we interact with computing in a quarter-century:

The shift we’re seeing now in how humans use technology and interact with machines is unparalleled since the time we had the Windows GUI come out.

Yvette Cameron, SVP Strategy & Corporate Development at SAP SuccessFactors, expects conversational computing to become the main interface for enterprise HR within the next five years:

I think one of the biggest impacts that people aren’t even really thinking about is how it’s going to replace if not significantly change the navigation paradigm, the way we interact with our systems ...

People say, ‘Well, what’s your UI going to look like in five years?’ and I’m saying you probably don’t have to touch the laptop. It should be fully voice command and the intelligence should interpret what you’re saying and take it forward.

Root-and-branch reinvention

The switch to conversation as the primary interface is giving a lift to messaging platforms like Slack, whose platform approach lets it sit above all the underlying applications people use, as Rav Dhaliwal, EMEA head of customer success, explains:

We’re abstracting away from the user the complexity of what’s underneath. They’re just getting their work done, in a way that’s engaging and pleasant for them, without having to worry about context-switching between applications, learning different UIs, and having to manage multiple things on multiple logins.

It's a mistake, then, to think of conversational computing as just another interface option alongside conventional web and mobile apps — just as most people's mistaken first reaction to cloud computing was that it was just another deployment option that would never replace conventional client-server architectures. As the history of data center servers has shown, going headless is just the first step on a long journey of increasing disembodiment.

The emergence of conversational computing heralds a period of root-and-branch reinvention for enterprise applications, in which existing functionality is unbundled and then recombined in new ways. This is especially true for systems of record, the back-end transactional applications that record and track an organization's core business data. The structure of that data has always presented problems for users interacting with it. Once the user interface moves away into a separate conversational layer, it opens the way for the underlying transactions to be recorded and stored in far more efficient patterns.

As I've recently noted, the advent of conversational computing has already had an impact on how enterprise collaboration will evolve. It may even elevate collaboration platforms to become the primary interface for interacting with all other enterprise applications. It is certainly going to be a big talking point for anyone tracking the enterprise applications marketplace over the next few years.

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