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Collection of popular social networking and video logo signs printed on paper: Google Plus, Pinterest, Flickr, Askfm, Kik and Hangouts (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)
Collection of popular social networking and video logo signs printed on paper: Google Plus, Pinterest, Flickr, Askfm, Kik and Hangouts (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)

Canadian app Kik looking to be more than just a messenger Add to ...

The chief executive officer of one of North America’s biggest chat apps wants to make it easier to order beer at your local stadium or arena.

Ted Livingston, co-founder of Kik Interactive Inc., based in Waterloo, Ont., is racing against some of the world’s biggest technology companies in an effort to extend the easy on-demand interactions of the mobile Internet to physical commercial moments like ordering beer at a stadium, buying a hot dog from a street vendor or summoning a waiter to your table at a restaurant.

His goal is to turn his messaging app, favoured by teenagers, into a pervasive, ubiquitous computing platform, a habitual and necessary tool to make daily tasks and consumer transactions more efficient.

“Chat apps will come to be thought of as the new browsers; bots will be the new websites. This is the beginning of a new Internet,” Mr. Livingston wrote in a recent post on Medium.

By some counts, there are already more chat-app users on services such as Snapchat, WhatsApp and China’s WeChat than social network users, and Kik says it has 200 million.

It’s an ambitious goal for Mr. Livingston, 28, a University of Waterloo graduate who got his start at BlackBerry. Silicon Valley giants including Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon are vying to hook users to their own ubiquitous computing platforms, with ever-improving voice-activated offerings such as Siri and Echo, and other text-based platforms such as Facebook’s Messenger.

The battle for the interface of the ubiquitous Internet is just beginning, and there may be room for more than one radically different approach.

Kik recently began bringing journalists and other stakeholders to restaurants to show off a version of the experience the almost seven-year-old company is working to deliver. Right now, where such digital-physical interactions exist (like digital ordering at Starbucks), a user has to download a vendor-specific app that can’t be used at other businesses. Mr. Livingston thinks that world, dominated by app stores on mobile ecosystems built by Apple and Google, is broken and will be replaced by platform agnostic services like his.

Demos of the Kik way involve scanning a chat code with your phone that opens a chatbot, allowing users to order drinks and menu items and even summon the waiter. (The code looks similar to the unappealing QR codes that cropped up a few years ago, but Mr. Livingston believes the major chat players will agree on a standard code type soon.)

WeChat is farther down this road in China. Parent company Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s latest results showed that WeChat has more than 697 million monthly active users, 300 million of whom have added payment credentials for peer-to-peer transfers or e-commerce, and the company collected more than $46-million (U.S.) in bank fees (on a 0.1 per cent commission), which represents close to $50-billion in transactions on the network.

Tencent made a $50-million investment in Kik in August, though Kik says the relationship is “mainly financial” and not as much product-focused.

Both voice activation and chatbots have roots in the 1960s. Think back to the way the crew members used computers on Star Trek. In addition to physical controls and readouts, they would just talk to “Computer,” which was always listening and ready to respond.

Amazon’s Echo, a voice-activated and artificially intelligent device that allows users to make requests of a robot called Alexa, is one of the first non-fictional systems to get close to that style of interaction. One of the first chatbots ever developed, called ELIZA, was also created between 1964 and 1966 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

By the late eighties, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center was experimenting with systems that its top technologist, Mark Weiser, called “invisible” or ubiquitous: Hundreds of wireless computing devices per person all over an office that added up to a “a computer so embedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it.”

It sounds very much like the Internet of Things, but what is being fought over now is who is going to own the interface over which services are delivered, or who will hold the keys to this invisible kingdom.

Amazon is making its case for Echo by letting third-party developers create “skills” that Alexa can be updated with. While the device is not yet available in Canada, Toronto’s Connected Labs (the startup develops apps and tech in this new space between our phones and other connected devices) recently held an app hackathon in partnership with Amazon devoted to building new things to do with Alexa.

The winning entry was called “My Fridge,” a system that Toronto app workshop TribalScale created that allows you to talk to Alexa as you toss items in your icebox, creating a log of ingredients and expiry dates. The app can offer reminders about expiry dates and suggest recipes based on the contents.

“Echo is one of the few examples of an IoT [Internet of Things] platform that works well in its early state,” says Mike Stern of Connected Labs, who thinks Kik and Amazon are heading down the same road in terms of pushing the app into the background in favour of interfaces.

“The chatbot interface is building all the infrastructure you need to solve the voice interface,” because, Mr. Stern argues, they follow similar logic in terms of programming for human responses. “They are really a Trojan Horse for voice interactions with machines.”

The team at Kik says it is not yet interested in wading into the increasingly popular ubiquitous computing alternative systems such as voice-activated and artificially intelligent devices.

“People are getting too caught up on the novelty of [artificial intelligence]. In many cases, a simple set of responses would be a faster and more understandable way to have a conversation with a bot,” says Michael Roberts, head of messenger at Kik. “Voice is faster than text but more interruptive. We’re focused on getting you quick responses wherever you may be, even where it would be inappropriate to use your voice to interact.”

While Kik has long said that adding spending power to user accounts is in the works, perhaps some time in 2016 with a payment processor like MasterCard, another barrier is the age of its users: Most teens don’t have access to credit to begin with. Amazon’s built-in commerce connections (such as Prime membership for shoppers) could be Alexa’s biggest edge.

The first Canadian barrier to using Alexa is that it’s not on sale outside the United States just yet. When it does arrive, users will have to talk out loud in a room to command it (at times a socially awkward endeavour) and have to use a mobile app to find and update it with “skills.” That puts it squarely in the app-centric world, and in competition with either Google Now or Apple’s Siri interface that’s preloaded on your phone. Also, perhaps crucially, Alexa is currently tethered to your home, unlike your phone.

“There have been over the years, many different people that have called for the end of the app days. With these new types of interfaces, chat or voice, you’re seeing it again. My personal opinion is the phone and the people that are making the phone are still the gatekeepers and the main influencers on how third parties will build technology,” Mr. Stern says.

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