Google Allo, the instant messaging app from the search giant power by the new Google Assistant, will start going live for users across the world. Messaging has come a long way for Google which has gone from GTalk to G-chat to Hangouts via Google Wave and Buzz.
But it’s not just Google’s messaging apps that have evolved; most of us now rely on four or five staple messaging apps. WhatsApp is there occupying our family and office groups, Facebook Messenger for most of our friends, even as some of us are exploring Snapchat, or the secret chats on Telegram with end-to-end encryption or WeChat or Line with a bit of Slack at work. The list is endless and Google’s Allo joins this crowded world, but with one clear USP: Google Assistant.
I’ve been using Google Allo for the last week or so on iOS. But for the beta version, I only have one friend to chat with, the same person who had Duo before pretty much the rest of the world. The option to invite friends will happen post-beta. However users have the option of sending an SMS for free to friends who don’t have the app and their reply comes straight in the Allo app. The SMS option was available for only some friends in my list. Your friend gets a link asking them to download Allo or ignore or just reply.
Signing into Google Allo is simple like on Google Duo. All you need is a phone number, and yes you can sync your Google account with this as well — recommended if you’re planning to use the Google Assistant feature. Google Assistant exists as a separate chat conversation where you can post some requests directly.
For instance I’ve set up a daily news alert at 8.00 am where I get the top news articles. The results could be better as sometimes the articles feel a bit dated. But Google Assistant will ask you each time what you thought of the results, and you can give it a thumbs up or down. You can even set alerts for a specific topic like PM Narendra Modi. Pretty useful for journalists who need to keep track of the news everyday.
Since Google Assistant relies on machine learning the more you interact with it, the better it will get over time. You can also ask it for the top restaurants in the area or timings for a movie in your area and it will show the results. These requests can be placed via a voice message as well. I placed a voice message asking for Pink show timings and it showed me the results, although for some reason the link was for timings in Jaipur. Eventually, I figured out I had to be really specific; the magic phrase was Showtimes for Pink in Delhi.
And Google Assistant does do some impressive things. So for instance, in the private chat with Google Assistant, I could ask it to search for my photos taken in Sri Lanka, and it showed me the exact results. These are photos on my Google Photos app, with Sri Lanka as location and it was impressive (and, yes scary) that Google is just pulling these.
Sadly, you can’t pull this request in a conversation with someone yet. So I can’t just say Open my Sri Lanka photos in a group conversation and just share them with a friend instantly. I’m hoping this will happen eventually, because it will make sharing pictures pretty easy.
Google Allo’s smart learning bit is the highlight. It has smart replies to messages sent by your friend just like Inbox does when a mail comes in; makes things a bit easier when you don’t want to keep typing ‘ok’ or ‘sure’ to every message. The app can also recognise images and give replies based on what picture is showing. Again a combination of cool and scary and I don’t see any other messaging app catching up to this for now.
Allo also has the rest of the messaging app jazz that has become standard these days. Like Stickers, and yes there are Indian stickers as well. There’s also the ability to scribble on photos (sadly can’t do that on iOS yet) or send a message in a really big font (to indicate shouting) or send a message as a tiny font (whisper). iMessage also recently got this feature, so it’s not really the showstopper here.
In the US, Google Assistant will be able to make restaurant reservations right from a conversation via OpenTable. In India, you can still ask Google Assistant to give a list of restaurants — for instance ask about Sushi Places in Delhi, and it will show the top results. Click on a restaurant from the list, and you can just go ahead and look for directions, or place a call or even see pictures from the restaurant (these open in a separate browser though and take you out of the app). All of this can take place inside a group conversation or a regular conversation with a friend, and it will definitely make picking a place for dinner much easier.
And while Google Assistant comes with a host of convenient features, it also means the app is not end-to-end encrypted. For that you have to go to Incognito mode, and these messages have a set expiration time. You can choose to see when the messages expire from never to one week with a range of options in between. Google has faced criticism for not making this default across the app, but as the company points it would have meant no Google Assistant on Allo. Even Facebook Messenger, which is already usheing in chatbots, is launching a separate ‘Secret’ conversations feature, which is end-to-end encrypted.
So far, I’ve liked how Allo has integrated Google Assistant and I’m waiting for more friends to come board. In Duo’s case, that happened very quickly as soon as the app was launched and many people from my list were on the app. Duo has already cross 10 million downloads, according to Google. Of course, Allo will be seen as a WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger competitor and both of these have 1 billion users each. The power of the Google’s machine learning makes Allo a formidable challenger, but that alone won’t determine its success. Allo will need to convince users and their friends that it’s an app they just can’t afford delete.