While social media more generally has become a bigger and more important part of our everyday lives, it's messaging apps that have really taken off in recent times.
Facebook Messenger's the prime example, going from 200 million users in 2014 to 900 million now. Of course, Messenger had an advantage, in that Facebook split Messenger from its main app and forced users to download the Messenger app for chats, but even so, the growth of messaging apps is clearly evident in other platforms too - WhatsApp, also Facebook-owned, now has more than a billion monthly active users, while the growth of Snapchat, which is also, essentially, a direct messaging app, has been well-documented.
Underlining this, at their recent F8 developer conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted that Facebook's now processing around 60 billion messages per day across their messaging platforms - three times more than global SMS volume was at its peak.
This, of course, is why Facebook's looking to evolve their eCommerce options for Messenger, with the introduction of bots and tools to help brands better connect with their audiences via the communication methods they're already using. Messaging is a big focus for the future of Facebook, and the data suggests that we're only going to see messaging use continue to grow.
And now, Google's looking to get in on the action.
Not to be outdone by Zuck and Co., Google has today announced the launch of their own messaging and video chat options - Allo and Duo. Both Allo and Duo offer a range of new functionalities, and they look very slick, but will they offer enough to get users to switch across from the networks where they've already got established groups and connections?
First up, there's Allo, Google's new 'smart messaging' app. Allo's focus is direct connection, similar to Facebook Messenger, with a range of AI-fuelled and Google enhanced features to make it stand out from the pack - here's how it works.
The basic interface of Allo is very familiar - Google's deliberately tried to keep the interface basic to put more focus on the content. Allo also has a range of cool features to keep users engaged - things like a 'Whisper and Shout' slider (as shown in the GIF above) which enables you to quickly re-size your text, dependent on what you want to communicate.
But the real magic of Allo lies in its AI and integrated Google search capabilities.
In similar fashion to Facebook's 'M', Allo's hooked into Google's Knowledge Graph, which means you can ask it questions and conduct searches for contextual info in-stream.
As per Google:
"You can chat one-on-one with the assistant, or call on Google in a group chat with friends. Either way, you no longer have to jump between apps to do things like book a dinner reservation with friends, get up-to-date sports scores, settle a bet, or play a game. The assistant in Allo lets you bring things like Search, Maps, YouTube and Translate to all your conversations, so that you and your friends can use Google together."
Google's also built in advanced natural language recognition capabilities, as well as the capacity for the system to 'learn' how you speak. In the case of the former, Allo, Google says:
"...understands your world, so you can ask for things like your agenda for the day, details of your flight and hotel, or photos from your last trip. And since it understands natural language patterns, you can just chat like yourself and it'll understand what you're saying. For example, "Is my flight delayed?" will return information about your flight status."
While in regards to learning how you communicate, Allo will enable users to reply to messages "without typing a single word". How? Allo has a Smart Reply system that learns your most common responses and will then provide you with quick-tap suggestions in your own communication style. You then just click on the desired response and send it through.
It seems somewhat formulaic - and no one wants to feel that they're that predictable or repetitive - but based on the example provided in the below GIF, you can see that it could come in handy, particularly when communicating on the go.
Did you notice the other key element in that sequence? Allo also has an in-built photo recognition system which will suggest possible responses based on image content.
The functionality, if it works as smoothly as displayed, is both impressive and a little freaky. When you see those responses going back and forth, it's not that hard to imagine a reality where machines will learn us, our schedules and our preferences, so well that we might not even need to interact at all. Think about it, if Allo was to learn your common responses to each person - who you were more likely to hang out with, how you talk to each other - it could, theoretically, simulate an entire conversation on your behalf, then just send you a reminder of when you have to go meet them to catch up. Weird, but going on this example, it may not that far removed from what's possible.
Or, maybe, you could just use it to automate your responses to that friend who posts a few too many pictures of their cat, but to whom you don't want to appear rude by not commenting on each.
Allo will also have an incognito mode with end-to-end encryption (like WhatsApp) and discreet notifications.
And in case you're wondering, the name Allo comes from the app's ability to understand how you talk - for example, are you more a 'hello' or an 'allo' person?
Google's other new connective app is called Duo, a one-to-one video calling app which has been built to deliver optimal experiences across varying connections. Duo is sleek looking and, as with Allo, is presented with minimal distractions to help you stay focused on the content.
Duo video calls are presented in HD (up to 720p) and, as noted, the system's built to operate well on poor quality connections, enabling more people to use the service (and reducing annoying drop-outs).
One of the coolest features of Duo is what Google's calling 'Knock Knock', which you can see in the above video. With 'Knock Knock', call receivers are shown a live video preview of the caller before they pick up - the call is muted but you can see what the other person is doing. You then just click on the answer button to interact.
The capacity to provide a visual reference point before a video call could be a big draw, as it gives users a whole new context to the connection - as highlighted in the video, an image of a new picture your daughter has drawn might be enough to get you to pick up in the midst of a busy day. You can also imagine such functionality could be useful in case of an emergency - if you're busy and you get a call, and you're not sure whether you absolutely need to pick up or not, the visual reference might help guide your choice and ensure you don't miss anything important.
At first glance, the new video features reminded me of Snapchat's recent chat update, within which users will have the option of either watching an incoming video chat or joining.
It's not quite the same - Snapchat's video won't show up on your lock screen - but like Duo and Allo, Snapchat's update introduced a range of interesting messaging options in order to keep up with the growing user trend towards direct connection. The advantage Snapchat has in this regard is they already have users on their app, people are already interacting via Snap anyway, so introducing new features is just another way to keep them on-platform. With Duo and Allo, Google needs to win people over and get them away from the applications that they're already familiar with, and have their friendship groups on.
And that's going to pose their biggest challenge.
Innovation and Differentiation
Winning over users actually poses the biggest challenge for any new app or social network. Those that have succeeded in social media, and messaging more widely, have offered key points of differentiation. This was the core problem faced by new players like Peach or Ello, for example - while both those social apps are functional and have gone on to establish their own, dedicated, communities, they've failed to get to a level of critical mass because they're simply not different enough to trigger a mass-migration.
Snapchat's the shining example of this - when Snapchat burst onto the scene it offered something that was both being sought and was not available elsewhere, in disappearing messages. Snapchat also arrived at just the right time when user angst about Facebook's algorithms was ramping up (and the platform was becoming so mainstream that everyone, from your Mom to your Grandma, was signing on). Snapchat expanded upon this by focusing on the needs and wants of their user community, adding in new, industry-leading features like filters and lenses - updates that have since been copied by the bigger players. But the key element in Snapchat's success has unmistakably been differentiation. The experience you have on Snapchat can't be re-created anywhere else. This is what's fuelled the app's continued growth.
Ello offered an ad-free alternative to Facebook - but people don't necessarily want an alternative, they just want Facebook with fewer ads. That element, in itself, wasn't enough to inspire a significant amount of users to move across - and the level of 'inspiration' required on this front is getting bigger all the time as people integrate platforms like Facebook and Messenger into their everyday lives, building online communities of people familiar with the workings and processes of each app. As that group familiarity solidifies, it makes it harder and harder for people to make a shift. Because you have to start all over again, you have to get all your friends across.
If you're going to go to all that effort, there needs to be a good reason why.
And this is where Google's new apps may struggle. While they no doubt look impressive, and there's some cool new features to test and use, will they be enough to get users away from Messenger?
Google Knowledge Graph integration is awesome, but is it something that you just have to have?
Of course, the proof will come once the new apps are live and people get a chance to test them out, but definitely, Google faces an uphill battle.
Just as Google+ wasn't significantly different enough from Facebook to inspire large numbers of people to come across, Allo and Duo might not quite be unique enough to spark a significant user shift.
But then again, as noted by Google CEO Sundar Pichai, 50% of Google searches are now being conducted via mobile, and growing. Maybe, providing people with an easier, more natural way to integrate Google search into their interactions will be enough to motivate a change.
Both Allo and Duo will be available this summer on Android and iOS.