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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Mobile Apps

No download needed: The rise of chatbots

Apps aren't going anywhere, but lately more companies are offering services through text messaging. Here's what you need to know.

Josh Miller/CNET

Editors' note, May 3, 2016: This article has been updated to remove AskAlexis, which is no longer available.

Before Messenger , WhatsApp and Snapchat , texting was the number one way to communicate, and according to the developers behind a new wave of apps, texting is still king.

In recent months, there's been an explosion of chatbots. These services use SMS to communicate with you and carry out actions that you would ordinarily do in an app. You send a text to a specific phone number and within seconds you'll get an appropriate reply to your question or request.

Meant to be as streamlined as possible, with no design or UI to navigate, there's hardly anything standing between you and the service, which span from personal assistants to money management.

Why not have an app?

Apps are huge part of our smartphones, so why would developers want to ditch them? In part because it's much easier just to build a service that interacts with you over text. Instead of pouring resources into designing and building a native app, developers can just focus on creating an amazing service.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Below I'll highlight four SMS-based chatbots that have been gaining attention lately, covering what they do and some of the downsides of them.


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Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Cloe

First up is Cloe, a personal assistant that knows your city inside and out. "She" can give you recommendations for restaurants, stores and services like hair salons or florists. Billed as a more personal version of Siri, you can ask Cloe for help deciding between businesses or just find local hot spots. Instead of just showing you a list of search results, like Google or Siri, Cloe will zero in on one particular suggestion and give you all the info you need.

In my testing, Cloe was fast, responsive and more engaging than just searching for an answer myself. She'll offer more human-like tips that you won't necessarily find elsewhere. The service is part bot, part human, so it can find you results fast, but also understand your more nuanced requests, like a tailor in downtown San Francisco open until 6pm tonight.


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Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Magic

While Cloe will help you find a place to go, Magic will help bring things to you. You can text the service to order food, purchase nearly any product and even book airline tickets.

Magic gets your payment information up front so it can make purchases on your behalf, with your consent. You don't get much control, especially when it comes to food, but that's the point; the service is supposed to cut out a lot of the work for you. For instance, if you want to order a pizza, you can simply tell it "I want a cheese pizza and a liter of Pepsi," Magic will find a suitable option, confirm the purchase price and send it to you.

While Magic has the potential to be a personal assistant that does everything for you, the real-world results are mixed. Writing for Wired, Brent Rose had a positive experience where Magic came through for all of his requests, while Jason Del Ray at Recode had some issues. I didn't get to try out Magic (I'm still on the waitlist), but I can't help but think that it's a lot like Kozmo.com, which flopped in the tech bubble.


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Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Digit

Unlike the personal assistant services on this list, Digit is all about helping you save money, without you noticing. You connect your bank account on Digit's website, using your bank's online portal, and then the service keeps tabs on your spending.

Over time, it figures how much you spend in a typical week and when your bills are due to identify how much money you can save without missing it. With your permission, Digit will save that money into a separate, FDIC-insured account that you can deduct from at anytime. I wish that Digit was able to save money for me in my own savings account, instead of a separate account.

Digit also texts you your balance every day and you can text it to get that information on demand, as well as your upcoming bills, recent transactions and savings balance.