Back before operating systems like Windows and Mac OS became popular, we interacted with computers through the command line. In a way, it was the original chatbot: a little blinking cursor on a black terminal screen, allowing us to tell our computers what to do in plain text. Command lines had the advantage of being precise, powerful, and incredibly quick—if you knew what you were doing—but they had the disadvantage of being obscure, too. Instead of just pointing a cursor at an icon, you needed to know exactly how to phrase your command for it to do anything at all.
It's this obscurity that eventually killed off the command line for all but neckbeard Unix superusers. But with his new startup, Prompt, Tom Hadfield thinks it's time to bring command lines back—not as the way we talk to our computers exactly, but as the way we talk to the thousands of services we use on an every-day basis. Prompt aspires to let you do that without ever opening the corresponding apps. How? Just by texting.
On its surface, Prompt is incredibly simple. First, you sign up through SMS, the official Prompt website, or by installing a Prompt bot in Slack. Once that's done, you interact with Prompt by sending it commands. For example, typing "@uber from Penn Station to LaGuardia Airport" would order a car to pick you up to drop you at the airport. Type "@nest 73" and Prompt will turn up your heat if you have a Nest thermostat. "@flightstats AA21" would get you the status for American Airlines flight 21; "@hue" will turn on and off your Philips Hue bulbs; "@showtimes" will tell you what movies are playing near you, and so on.
At launch, there are more than three dozen commands supported on Prompt, with a dozen more available soon (including Viber, Skype, Line, WhatsApp, and—this will be dangerous—the ability to quickly order a pizza from Domino's via a simple text). But Prompt is also easily extensible, says Hadfield. "Users can build a chatbot in 30 minutes with 30 lines of code, using our developer tools for authentication, API integration, and language parsing," Hadfield says. The eventual goal, he says, is for the number of Prompt commands to match the scope of the App Store.
No one can say Hadfield isn't aiming big with Prompt. But why would anyone want to text Prompt for directions home or order an Uber with a text instead of opening the native apps?
According to Hadfield, the idea for Prompt came out of his last startup, a human-powered SMS assistant called Fetch. Although Hadfield was never able to find a scalable business model for Fetch, he discovered that when people know exactly what they want to do, they find text interfaces quicker and easier than opening an app. For example, he points out that using the Domino's app to order a pizza involves clicking through seven screens, even if you already know what you want. When Domino's support comes to Prompt, though, you can order in seconds by sending "@dominos large Hawaiian" over SMS.
Prompt only saves time, then, if you've got a crystal-clear idea about what you want to do. So, really, it's not so different from its predecessor. What the command line was to Linux, Windows, and OS X power users—a quick, efficient way to get a computer to do precisely what you want them to do—Prompt aims to be for today's power users of Google, Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, your thermostat, your sprinkler system, you name it. The idea is to break the functionality of your favorite products and services free from their walled-in apps, which is why Prompt doesn't even have an app.
Just like the command line, though, Prompt's biggest barrier to entry is syntax. Although simply typing in a command (like @uber) and hitting "enter" will get you instructions, commands entered in Prompt tend to fall over if you don't type them exactly right. That's especially frustrating on smartphones, where on-screen keyboards and autocorrect can wreak havoc with Prompt's super-specific vocabulary. Hadfield says he hopes Prompt will get better at understanding humans over time, even when they make mistakes. "We are building out the natural language processing to make the commands less brittle," he says.
What makes it different, though, is it's not just a chatbot—it unites them, while also giving a text interface to apps and services that aren't chatbots at all. In Tolkein-esque terms? It's the one chatbot to rule them all. Sign up for Prompt here.