Image credit: Pexels

(Additional reporting by Pearl Lee)

In December 2017, Line trialed a chatbot service in Tokyo designed to make it easier for pregnant women to get seats on crowded trains. They push a button on their Line app and send bluetooth signals to seated passengers whose noses are buried in their phones.

The app is also meant to help people who have physical disabilities or mental health problems. The developer team that created this chatbot calls itself “&Hand.” It may look odd, but it has meaning: the ampersand represents the Japanese word “Ando (安堵)” or relief – something that the group hopes to give to those looking for it. The team won US$90,000 at the 2017 Line Bot Awards.

“We were very happy to be able to give the grand prize to the team that came up with the concept that would help make society better,” says Shinichiro Isago, development relations manager at Line, in an interview with Tech in Asia.

Attracting 815 teams within and outside Japan, the Line Bot Awards is just one of the many ways that Line fosters collaboration with developers.

What developers really want

Of course, there are many other reasons why developers want to create chatbots apart from winning awards.

Isago’s team focuses on growing what they call the “developer ecosystem,” born after the Line Bot Awards held early last year.

See: Here are 6 chatbots that solve real-life problems

Before the introduction of the messaging API to outside developers, only in-house developers could create chatbots on Line’s platform.

In this software era, however, Isago believes that every business entity needs to be open to innovation, and having a developer ecosystem is pivotal to create innovative services. As such, Line needs more of the “passion and creativity” that he sees in independent developers.

“To quickly build up a comprehensive ecosystem with various services, open innovation is the best way,” he explains, emphasizing the need for diversity and volume of services to meet various needs.

Line said it meets with independent developers about twice a week, but it did not disclose just how many of them it’s working with.

Most developers have full-time jobs “in mid-large enterprise IT companies,” shares Isago, especially in Japan, the bellwether of new technologies. He says that at work, they don’t often get to exercise their creativity, particularly in choosing projects, technologies, and architecture.

As such, it’s not surprising that they turn to app development to let their imaginations fly. “On weekends or weekday nights, they participate in meet-ups and hackathons to gather the latest knowledge and opportunities to create what they want to build,” he adds.

Developers care about efficiency

Line opened its messaging API to the public in September 2016, allowing any developer to create chatbots for the messaging service – free of charge.

Building a native app is the bread and butter of most developers. And since developers value efficiency, Line makes it easier for them to build a chatbot with the public Line messaging API, complete with various templates and software development kits (SDK).

The newest addition to the messaging API is the flexible rich menu. It’s a set of buttons at the bottom of a smartphone screen where developers building chatbots can map actions to specified areas.

What Line’s flexible rich menu looks like / Image credit: Line

Isago hailed it as “the future” during his speech at Line Developer Day 2017.

At present, there are over 100,000 chatbots on the Line platform that were made by both independent and in-house developers. Every day, they communicate with two billion Line users, with about 10 billion messages sent between bots and users.

Lending developers an ear

Developers also code in a variety of languages, the most common of which are Java, Go, Ruby, PHP, Python, Node.js, and Perl. The SDK for all seven of them are available on Line.

Those who code in a language that’s not listed above can take up their concerns with Line’s developer relations team via email, instant messaging, or in person.

“We will try our best to fill the gaps for developers,” says Isago, whose team is currently preparing several schemes to support this goal. These new plans are aimed at providing them with a better user experience (UX) for developers, improve searches for technical documents, or change bot settings easily.

He continues, “A developer forum for interactive question and answer sessions and a developer product roadmap for transparency is also in the works.”

Developers can also be certified as a Line API expert, similar to Google Developer Experts and Microsoft MVPs.

Image credit: Pexels

More companies want to work with developers

On top of competitions such as the Bot Awards and large-scale conferences like Line Developer Day 2017, Line holds “hackathons” as well. These events bring together Line and non-Line developers, encouraging them to collaborate.

According to Isago, Line gets useful feedback during hackathons, which it can then use to boost product development. Hackathons are also “the best place to meet skillful developers” and can strengthen the ecosystem to facilitate the discovery of budding talents, he adds.

One of Line’s star contributors joined the team in summer: Tachibana Sho. Personally scouted by Isago, Sho has created many Line bots and even published a book earlier last year. The user-friendly guide teaches readers how to successfully create Line bots.

The company also introduced the Line API Expert program at the end last year. “Outstanding and influential” developers who possess a deep understanding of the company’s APIs are accepted into the program and eligible for monetary rewards. The ka-ching factor, however, holds little appeal to some developers.

Hiki Hiroyuki, a recently appointed Line API Expert, shares that he’s received many offers to turn app development into a business and “make money.” But that’s not what gets him going. “What doesn’t excite me as an engineer, I don’t have an interest in,” he stresses.

Hiroyuki earned his new title in January 2018, giving him the chance to present on stage at industry events. He decided to try developing for Line when Isago – who’s famous in the cloud computing community – joined the company.

“I was able to utilize my [expertise in] cloud knowledge to make something that would benefit end users. I’m so grateful for the experience,” says Hiroyuki.

Against the backdrop of disruptive technologies, banks and other tech companies are seeking to create the sort of developer ecosystem that Line has cultivated through hackathons, accelerators, and innovation spaces.

“A community approach is something sensitive, and members might not want to talk business. So enterprise companies should [act as] supporters, organizers, or facilitators, and not a sales manager,” advises Isago.

As he contends, “A developer ecosystem is not a marketing channel.”

This is the final part of the coverage of Line Developer Day 2017, a technical conference held in Shibuya, Tokyo on September 28.

This post How Line works with independent developers to innovate appeared first on Tech in Asia.