It's hard to know what to make of Google's new messaging app Allo.
First announced back in May, Allo is Google's attempt to get in on the messaging trend - a space currently lead by Facebook's Messenger and WhatsApp, both of which now have more than a billion monthly active users (and rising). And while Allo looks great and has some amazing features, it does feel like Google's coming in a little late.
Given this, Allo could well become the Google+ of messaging - functional, powerful, possibly better than its competitors, but lacking in significant enough differentiation to inspire any significant audience migration.
Here's how it works.
Smart and Fast
Overall, Allo works like any other messaging app - you sign up, get your friends on board and you can communicate quickly and easily via the app. But Allo brings a new set of tools to the table, functions that Google's hoping will give it an edge over other players.
First up is Smart Replies - as you go about your interactions, Allo will analyze the context of what you're saying and offer a set of one-tap responses you can use to save time (and thumb strain).
As shown in the above GIF, Allo's advanced response system not only reads your messages for context, it can also identify what's in your photos and provide potential response options based on that content too.
That's pretty amazing - but it does come at a cost. In order for Allo to understand the surrounding context, and to learn from your responses in order to refine and improve its Smart Reply suggestions, Allo needs to read and log all your messages on Google servers, which some privacy advocates have flagged as a concern - including one of the highest profile privacy advocates of them all.
This is also a change from Google's original approach to Allo, as noted by The Verge:
"The version of Allo rolling out today will store all non-incognito messages by default - a clear change from Google's earlier statements that the app would only store messages transiently and in non-identifiable form."
You can get around this by using Allo's "incognito mode", which is end-to-end encrypted, but, of course, Smart Replies won't work without the surrounding context - so you can go private, but it takes away all the features that differentiate the Allo experience.
On the flipside, if the privacy element isn't a concern for you, the Smart Replies can be a great way to speed up your responses - and as noted, Smart Replies will also learn from your most common responses in order to provide better, more personalized quick replies over time.
As we noted back in May, the functionality is both impressive and a little freaky. Sure, it'll save you time, but it also reduces the human element in the process. And if, over time, Allo was to really get to know your most common responses (particularly how you respond to certain friends), and match them up with your schedule and other data it might be able to access, it's possible that Allo could automate significant chunks of your personal interactions. Which would save time, but it also takes a little of the social element out of the process.
Allo also includes a range of visual tools to help spice up your messaging interactions.
As per Google:
"Chat is more than just text, so we've created a rich canvas for you to express yourself in Google Allo. You can make emojis and text larger or smaller in size by simply dragging the "send" button up or down. Make photos your own by scribbling on them before you send. And we've worked with independent artists and studios around the world to create more than 25 custom sticker packs - because sometimes a "sloth riding a pizza" says it all."
Similar functionality is available in most messaging apps these days, and it makes sense to provide such tools, as they're obviously popular additions. But Allo's options on this front don't offer anything much in terms of differentiation. Sure, new emoji are interesting, but they're likely not enough alone to inspire users to switch across - they're not a buzz-worthy feature like Snapchat's Lenses that inspire new people to download the app just to try them out.
Where Allo really has an opportunity to stand out is with the integration of search tools and features within the message stream.
Through Allo, Google's provided a "preview edition" of Google Assistant, Google's machine learning system that's designed to understand conversation context and provide relevant information as you need it, whenever that may be. Google's vision is to eventually expand Google Assistant into people's homes, cars and phones, keeping you connected to Google's vast data resources 24/7, but right now, Allo is the only place you'll see it. And it has some compelling use cases, especially when you consider the database it has to draw from.
As you can see, using Google Assistant, you can ask questions within a group chat by simple typing @google and posing a question. All chat participants will see the results - alternatively, you can personally message @google any time and it'll provide responses.
The benefit here, in Google's case, is that you're able to access Google's data banks, giving it a big advantage in terms of discovery and connection to relevant resources and information.
Google Assistant is also learning and developing improved semantic understanding capabilities - for example, if you were to look up a restaurant, then type in a follow up question like "is it open", Assistant will understand what you mean by "it".
As noted, in order to improve and refine this system, Google's storing data from all such interactions. Privacy concerns aside, this will also (if Allo sees big take up) help Google continue to refine their interactive models and AI. Essentially, you'll become part of their AI training team, with every interaction giving Google more data to work with. This'll not only improve Assistant over time, but it'll also help Google build their AI understanding in other contexts.
Given the access to Google's database, and the capacity it brings to connect people with information within the messaging interface, and the addition of interesting tools like smart replies, Allo offers a pretty good package, one worth trying out. But the question remains: will people care?
Most of people already have established networks of their friends on Messenger and WhatsApp - in order for them to switch to Allo, they'll need to convince all of those friends to also come across in order to make it worth their while. Some people will see the benefits of these new features, sure, but others might find them intrusive - yeah, you could look stuff up within your message thread for all to see, or you could look it up yourself and avoid the longer strings of interactions where people go back and forth with different ideas. Not only will you have the common "what about this one?" type exchanges in this new process, but you'll also be able to see the inner workings of how they get to their conclusions, the searches the user conducts to get there. Is that a good thing?
As noted, for some user these new additions will be great, but for others, not so much, and that's going to be a problem for Allo. Because you don't need a few people to come across, you need a lot, and if most of your friends opt not to make a switch and stay with Messenger instead, you too will likely have to stay with Messenger in order for the app to be of any use - i.e. to communicate with the people you want to talk to.
As noted, this is very similar to the challenge Google faced with Google+ - it was a good social platform, it had powerful, intelligent features. But everyone was already embedded on Facebook for those interactions by the time G+ came along - a few cool tools were just not enough to inspire large enough user migrations to make the new network a success. And this time, Google won't have the option to force users to use Allo in order to keep using other, more popular, Google services (as they did with YouTube).
That seems to be where Allo sits right now - it looks great, looks functional, maybe even better than other players in the market. But it's not significantly different enough to get big numbers of people across. Maybe that'll change with Google's mysterious October 4th launch, whatever that may be.
Quite the Google ad blitz on this one. Hope it's worth the hype. pic.twitter.com/zyf6MXDDit- John P. Falcone (@falconejp) September 21, 2016
But not likely.
But then again, maybe moderate success is all Google needs for Allo to be success, given the learnings they'll gain for their machine learning systems. Time, of course, will tell.