Facebook Messenger may be the dominant force as a platform for brands’ chatbots, but Apple is now hot on its tail. The launch of iOS 11.3 sees the arrival of Business Chat, an integrated feature in the Messages app. It provides a direct route through to a chatbot or customer service line.

At launch, that’s only for a limited number of U.S. brands including, umm, Apple. Also joining the fun are hotel chains Hilton and Marriott, stores The Home Depot and Lowe’s plus a select number of banks and retailers like online retailers NewEgg and Flowers.com.

Expect the number to flourish when the service leaves beta, and as businesses realise they can become directly accessible on over a billion iPhones and iPads.

Business Chat & Apple Pay

As with everything Apple, integration is high on the agenda with Business Chat. Users can launch Sessions as they come across a company when browsing in Safari or using Search. Or, when they find a business in the Maps app, all they have to do is tap a Message icon to launch a conversation.

That can trigger logical and short conversations, such as do you have this in stock, helping speed up purchasing. One of the key strengths of the services is linked payments with Apple Pay, making the service ideal for retailers. That will also appeal to airlines and services who can upsell upgrades, or help travellers switch flights.

Another Apple trait is a key part of the package, with security and privacy high on the agenda. So, these brands will only get your phone number or address if you explicitly give them permission, for deliveries and so on.

Business Chat Doesn’t Fade Away

Another advantage of Business Chat is that they remain in the Messages app for as long as required, giving them a distinct advantage over chat-and-forget website conversations. That’s likely to become a feature that others will adopt. It can also encourage users to download a brand’s official app for further interaction.

Otherwise, it will be ideal for the usual range of chatbot features including providing general information, making or rescheduling appointments and directing users to the right contact point. Since the chat is integrated into the OS, appointments can be automatically linked to the Calendar app. However, as chatbots rapidly get smarter, they are more likely to replace the human element and the Business Chat feature will likely be dominated by smart bots that can offer a full range of services.

Trust Is Key To Chatbot Success

The launch comes at a perfect time for Apple, with Facebook suspending new bot additions to its Messenger app, as Mark Zuckerberg’s company sorts out permissions and privacy settings to reestablish some trust after its recent political traumas. Chatbot services like SnatchBot provide clear privacy guidelines and it would be good to see all other players act transparently.

The one slightly scary thought is that, once Business Chat becomes more widely available, some less scrupulous brands might misuse the Pay feature. For example, “Chat to a bot for free, or for $1, you can jump the queue and talk to a real person.” But, hopefully, few businesses would stoop to that level.

Regardless, in general terms, chatbots need to be trusted and add value before customers will come to rely on them. While people love their Alexa and Siri, chatbots on a website or messaging app are that one-step removed from being part of the “digital family.” But as chatbots grow to become our “concierge presence” across all devices, their value will increase. And, so will our trust, as long as the services are resilient and remain well protected.

As a highly trusted brand, Business Chat is a feature that Apple users could adopt and help progress the general cause of chatbots, regardless of brand. It could also set a higher benchmark for security and interactivity. And, there’s likely more to come, Business Chat has moved from Developer Preview, but remains in Beta, for now.

In general terms, Business Chat will help boost the visibility of chatbots among all businesses, and help other services focus on addressing customers needs and improving the quality of products. This isn’t an Apple product that will change the world, but it will help nudge a fledgeling industry in the right direction.