Apple revealed more details of its new Business Chat feature for iMessage at a WWDC developer preview on Friday. Coming in iOS 11, Business Chat allows real customer service representatives to communicate directly with users, making the feature separate from existing AI chat bot systems.
Users send the first message to start a Business Chat conversation by tapping Message icons that appear beside the names of businesses in Spotlight searches, Siri, and Maps, or by scanning a relevant QR code with their phone's camera. These actions switch them into the Messages app, where the business can offer products for sale, provide appointment scheduling options, and send notifications to customers in the related chat thread, among other services.
In addition to connecting the user with a business, the Message icons or QR codes can carry specific information that links the user with a particular geographic location, or a related product or service, and can even provide the customer service representative with the user's first language and any existing customer account details, including past orders and security questions.
To further the conversation, Siri's predictive text bar above the onscreen keyboard can offer up personal details like phone numbers or addresses to the user in case they want to share the information with the business. Elsewhere, a new Time Picker feature in Business Chat makes it easy for customers to select appointment times, while a List Picker lets users choose sale items, like clothes or groceries, with Apple Pay on hand as a convenient payment method.
To help businesses assist customers, Apple is also letting them build their own custom iMessage App extensions. One demonstration given on stage was of an airline seat selector app that allowed the user to tap where they wanted to sit in the cabin when booking a flight.
Crucially, businesses can only send notifications to users who have already initiated contact, and the customer can choose to turn off notifications of incoming messages, delete the chat thread entirely, or simply block the company from communicating with them outright.
Business Chat is set to compete with similar services offered by the likes of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Skype, but Apple has the distinct advantage of offering it as a native feature in iOS 11, which will eventually come pre-installed on new devices and will likely enjoy a high adoption rate by millions of existing users when it is released in the fall.
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