Slack, the increasingly popular team-messaging software, wants more developers to build apps that hook into its work-chat software.
So it’s announcing new software, Botkit, to simplify the building of such apps; a directory to make it easier to find them; and an investment fund to back developers, particularly ones building apps solely for Slack. (Slack executives are expected to make the announcements at an event in San Francisco Tuesday evening.)
Slack is also planning to reveal that it now has 2 million daily active users. While not all of those pay for the service, that represents a healthy audience for app developers, particularly ones that must identify groups of people working together as teams.
In other words, Slack is putting together all the pieces needed for a successful platform: distribution, exposure, and tools.
The Botkit And Kaboodle
Slack “worked closely” on Botkit with Howdy, a startup focused on building chat-based Slack apps, according to April Underwood, Slack’s head of platform. Slack and Howdy are releasing Botkit under an open-source license.
“I want every [business-to-business] and enterprise developer to have a bot, and I want that bot to be in Slack,” said Underwood in an interview Tuesday morning.
Bots aren’t the only way Slack works with other apps, but they’re perhaps the most intriguing new interface Slack presents. Messaging apps in Asia have shown that users are willing to get updates and even chat with business accounts run by software. With Slack, the notion is that a user who’s chatting with colleagues can easily switch to chatting with a bot without the mental overhead of context switching.
Building a bot may sound easy—we’ve been building chat bots since the 1960s, if you remember Eliza, as I do, from the days when you would type in Basic programs from printed computer books.
Howdy CEO Ben Brown says it’s harder than it sounds. Coding a bot to send a user a direct message in Slack, for example, requires accessing three different APIs. And simply listening to users requires a bot to constantly monitor Slack channels and parse messages for relevance. Botkit lets developers skip that work and get down to more interesting features—what Brown calls the “functionality and personality” of bots.
Brown is also hoping to set standards or “design patterns” for bots. Think of Botkit as baking in some basic etiquette for bots built on top of it. Among other idea, Brown thinks all bots should be able to exchange pleasantries like saying hello, and identify who created them and where their software is running.
Underwood says that developers are already building bot-based apps for functions like expense reporting and employee feedback collection.
A Platform Which Needs A Few More Planks
This is pretty much what Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield hinted at two months ago when he said the company’s goal was to make other business apps better, not compete with them.
Obviously Slack’s just getting started here. But there are a few more things Slack could be doing to jump-start development on its platform.
One example of a developer who’s gone all-in with Slack is Figma, a collaborative design app. Figma CEO Dylan Field chose Slack as Figma’s primary sign-in option. It’s easy to see why: Slack accounts usefully define the scope of a specific business team in a way that email-based options like Google Apps or Microsoft’s Azure Active Directory don’t.
Underwood said that she primarily expected “Slack-first” developers to use Slack’s login service. For those developers, whose apps live as bots within Slack, it doesn’t make sense to have separate logins. But it will be interesting to see if more developers follow Figma’s example and use Slack login, not because it’s their only option, but because they see it as their best one.
Slack doesn’t make money directly from developers or apps today. But it does benefit from them. Slack strictly limits the number of “integrations,” or add-on apps, that its free users can use. So there’s a pretty direct link between how Slack makes money from paid subscribers and how many developers are building on top of Slack.
Slack has a credit card on file for most if not all of its paid users. Just as with Apple’s App Store and Google Play, it’s intriguing to think what might happen if Slack started letting users buy apps instead of just install them.
Slack As A Service
While Botkit simplifies the building of chat bots, it doesn’t actually run the bot for developers. They still have to find a home for it, like Amazon Web Services or Heroku. Slack, whose infrastructure is finely tuned for messaging services, could offer up a version of its own infrastructure for developers. In particular, Slack might share its technologies for signaling, presence detection, and notification delivery.
Chatting Up The Competition
Slack isn’t the only player in the chat wars. Atlassian, which recently went public and is now trading at $5.5 billion, has a team-messaging service named HipChat, which is integrated into its other tools like Jira, a bug-tracking service, and its (mostly awful) wiki software, Confluence. In November, Atlassian released HipChat Connect, an API which allows developers to build more visual apps with distinctive interfaces within HipChat.
As Fast Company recently pointed out, Slack and HipChat often end up courting the same developers. But overall, I suspect Slack has the better approach here, by emphasizing the primacy of the message as the universal software interface. (Indeed, Slack might be well-served by deemphasizing its geeky “slash” commands, a legacy of older chat tools that inspired Slack, in favor of chat.)
It’s going to be an interesting battle for the hearts, minds, and code of developers. I imagine we’ll have a lot to chat about for a long time to come.