Just around autumn last year, the ground beneath a bunch of niche bot makers in India shook. They were not making regular bots, programmes that automate tasks; they were building chatbots. The kind of bots that could chat with humans almost like a real person, learn about users and cater to their whims and needs. The entrepreneurs were creating proxy digital personal assistants.

The earth shattering news came from Facebook. About its new experiment—the digital virtual assistant M inside the Messenger. It was said to be strong and powerful—more than Siri and Cortana—because other than the artificial intelligence (AI) piece, it had an army of people on standby that could fulfill users’ requests in a fraction of a second.

“It was the moment of awakening,” says Sachin Jaiswal, co-founder of Niki.ai, an AI-based personal assistant startup. “It was October (last year) when we came to know about M, and we thought, shit, now we have to compete with Facebook.”

Niki was not alone to feel the jerk.There were many in the same boat. Haptik, MagicTiger, Yana, Helpchat, DudeGenie and Goodservice to name a few.

Things weren’t easy in any case for the band of dreamers who were betting on a service model that hadn’t taken off anywhere else in the world. Even in the US, where Magic, Mezi and Ozlo have been early champions of chatbots, they are far from being a blockbuster success.

rise of virtual personal assistants

India’s on-demand, virtual assistants offered to buy you grocery, pick your laundry, book you a movie ticket and plan your date. For the opportunity they explored, and the excitement they brought, they had a good run for a while. But soon the excitement faded, and so did the buzz.

India’s on-demand, virtual assistants offered to buy you grocery, pick your laundry, book you a movie ticket and plan your date. For the opportunity they explored, and the excitement they brought, they had a good run for a while. But soon the excitement faded, and so did the buzz.

Luckily for them, M did not fly. Facebook said its most awaited feature wasn’t due out for several more years because it still had a long way to go before it’d be ready for its 1.7 billion users. But that couldn’t save the Indian startups from what was impending. The churn and the fall. Earlier this year, a couple of them hung their boots. A few others got acquired, some pivoted, while the rest are still struggling to find their rightful place. More than a simple sum of rights and wrongs, the plight of Indian virtual assistants has been finding real problems to solve.

‘When things go wrong, as they sometimes will’

When Pratyush Prasanna founded MagicTiger last year, he thought he’d hit a homerun.

AUTHOR

Moulishree Srivastava

Moulishree has over five years of experience in journalism. In her previous assignment, she was a Principal Correspondent for Business Standard where she wrote on technology and telecom. Prior to Business Standard, she was at Mint, where she wrote on various subjects — tourism, hospitality, real estate, science, cyber security and technology. Moulishree graduated as an engineer in Information Technology from Chandigarh Engineering College. She worked as a software engineer briefly but then took a detour and got her journalism degree from IIJNM, Bangalore. She will be based in Bangalore and you can reach her at her first-name@the-ken.com.

View Full Profile

Subscribe to read this story

The Ken is the only business subscription you need. Questions?

 

Premium

  • 5 original and reported longform business stories every week
  • Access to ONLY India edition
  • Close to 250 exclusive stories every year
  • Full access to over 5 years of paywalled stories
  • Pick up to 5 premium subscriber newsletters
  • 4 original and reported longform business stories each week
  • Access to ONLY Southeast Asia edition
  • Close to 200 exclusive stories every year
  • Full access to all paywalled stories since March 2020
  • Pick up to 5 premium subscriber newsletters

Rs. 2,750 /year

$ 120 /year

India Edition
Subscribe Subscribe
Most Asked For

Borderless

  • 8 original and reported longform business stories each week
  • Access to both India and Southeast Asia editions
  • Close to 400 exclusive stories every year
  • Full access to over 5 years of paywalled stories across India and Southeast Asia
  • Unlimited access to all premium subscriber newsletters
  • Visual Stories

Rs. 4,200 /year

Subscribe
 

Echelon

  • 8 original and reported longform business stories each week
  • Access to both India and Southeast Asia editions
  • Close to 400 exclusive stories every year
  • Full access to over 5 years of paywalled stories across India and Southeast Asia
  • Unlimited access to all premium subscriber newsletters
  • Visual Stories
  • Bonus annual gift subscription
  • Priority access to all new products and features

Rs. 8,474 /year

Subscribe
Or

Questions?

What kind of subscription plans do you offer?

We have three types of subscriptions
- Premium which gives you access to either the India or the Southeast Asia edition.
- Borderless which gives you complete access to The Ken across both editions
- Echelon which gives you complete access to The Ken across both editions along with a bonus gift subscription

What do I get if I subscribe?

The Premium edition gives you access to stories in that edition along with any five subscriber-only newsletters of your choice.

The Borderless and Echelon subscription gives you complete access to The Ken across editions and unlimited access to as many newsletters as you like.

What topics do you usually write about?

We publish sharp, original and reported stories on technology, business and healthcare. Our stories are forward-looking, analytical and directional — supported by data, visualisations and infographics. We use language and narrative that is accessible to even lay readers. And we optimise for quality over quantity, every single time.

Our specialised subscriber-only newsletters are written by our expert, award-winning journalists and cover a range of topics across finance, retail, clean energy, cryptocurrency, ed-tech and many more.

How many newsletters do you have?

We are constantly adding specialised subscriber-only newsletters all the time. All of these are written by our team of award-winning journalists on a specialised topic.

You can see the list of newsletters that we publish over here.

Does a Premium subscription to your Indian edition get me access to the Southeast Asia edition? Or vice-versa?

Afraid not. Each edition is separate with its own subscription plan. The India edition publishes stories focused on India. The Southeast Asia edition is focused on Southeast Asia. We may occasionally cross-publish stories from one edition to the other.

We recommend the Borderless or the Echelon Plan which will give you access to stories across both editions.

Do you have a mobile app?

Yes! We have a top-rated mobile app on both iOS and Android which allows you to read on-the-go and has some amazing features like the ability to bookmark stories, save on your device, dark mode, and much more. It’s really the best way to read The Ken.

Is there a free trial?

You can sign up for a free account to experience The Ken and understand our products better. We’ll send you some free stories and newsletters occasionally, and you can access our archive of previously published free stories. You can stay on the free account as long as you’d like.

The vast majority of our stories, articles and newsletters can be accessed only by a paid subscription.

Do you offer any discounts?

Sorry, no. Our journalism is funded completely by our subscribers. We believe that quality journalism comes at a price, and readers trust and pay us so that we can remain independent.

Do you offer refunds?

No. We allow you to sample our journalism for free before signing up, and after you do, we stand by its quality. But we do not offer refunds.

I am facing some trouble purchasing a subscription. What can I do?

Just write to us at support@the-ken.com with details. We’ll help you out.

I have a few more questions. How can I reach out to you?

Sure. Just email us at info@the-ken.com or follow us on Twitter.