Google Allo and Duo are two new messaging apps announced at the I/O 2016 conference. For many, the big question is why; why give us two new messaging apps, Google?
We already have Gchat–sorry Hangouts–but let’s face it, the popularity of Hangouts has been eclipsed by WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and other players. Some of us might still use Hangouts out of habit, but it is no longer the top preference. Allo and Duo are supposed to be alternative offerings for the messaging world from Google, incorporating some features that are starting to get popular in messaging apps.
For starters Allo is the text-based messaging app, and users will need to sign in with their mobile number to use it. Similar to what we do with WhatsApp or Snapchat or Telegram when starting an account.
Allo has features like Whisper and Shout, where users can either make the text appear really large (for shout) or really small (for whisper). Users can also add text to photos sent on Allo. But most importantly Allo harnesses the power of Google Assistant, which is the company’s smart and conversational assistant.
Google’s Assistant is powered by the company’s machine learning, and natural language programmes. It will offer “Smart suggestions” or quick short replies that users can send to their friends in Allo. The app will learn more replies over time; the more a user relies on Allo, the better these ‘smart replies’ will get.
Google says that its machine-learning capabilities mean that Allo can even get an auto-response when someone sends a picture, which is harder to understand for chatbots. For instance, in the demo Google’s Allo was able to create conversational responses like ‘Yummy’ for a picture of pasta.
Not just that, Allo will also give suggestions for restaurants, based on the kind of conversation you’re having inside the app. In the US, users will able to book a table at a restaurant inside the app via OpenTable. Google plans to add more such features in the future.
In Allo users can type @Google, and call for the assistant. The ‘Assistant’ will remember your name, favourite sports teams, and show the latest match results for these. Google is bringing the power of its Search capabilities into messaging.
Google is not the first player that wants to transform messaging into something bigger. Facebook has already started testing chatbots on Messenger, and some have gone live for users. Messenger’s M aims to offer something similar to Google Assistant. Messenger in the US, currently lets users order an Uber, and check flight bookings in some cases.
Chatbots on Messaging apps are seen as the future, and technically Google is playing catch up with some of the more popular players. Plus Allo is actually launching later in the year, which doesn’t help Google’s cause.
But Allo comes with power of Google Search, and that’s something a lot of users depend on daily. Be it our Android phones, or iPhones, or even desktop, Google Search remains the default option for many.
Given Google’s prowess in machine learning, there’s a good chance that its chatbot will be better than others. Google’s TensorFlow– its artificial intelligence engine– is already open-source, and the company is hoping to improve it further by relying on the entire developer community.
Plus we’ve seen what Google’s AI is capable of with AlphaGo. AlphaGo actually beat a human at the ancient Chinese game of Go, which is considered a feat since the game relies on instinct, rather than just logic. For computers, learning instinct and context is not as simple, and we’ve seen Google work towards this quite successfully.
But a smart chatbot won’t be enough to win users for Allo. Apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Messenger have a grip on users thanks to the fun features they offer. Snapchat, for instance, has become a means of consuming video content and sharing ‘stories’; WhatsApp is where many family groups are firmly entrenched.
Allo also has an Incognito mode where chats are end-to-end encrypted, while chats in the regular mode are encrypted. Incognito chats have message expiration time and the messages will disappear after some time. They also have private notifications. This is similar to the Secret Chat mode in Telegram. The encryption bit is nothing new really.
Recently WhatsApp ensured that all chats on it are end-to-end encrypted by default. But of course, those who are really obsessed with privacy might not find Allo so alluring.
Then there’s Duo, a new dedicated video-calling app from Google and it shows the incoming video, even if you’ve not picked up the call. Google says, “Duo will proactively monitor network quality, and will seamlessly switch between mobile data to WiFi depending on the connection.” This is the company’s answer to Skype, Apple’s FaceTime and will work across platforms. Both apps will come to Android and iOS later in the year.
On the face of it, Duo has nothing new to offer. The question remains: Why didn’t Google just add these feature to Hangouts, which also has support for video-calling and group video-calls? Also will these apps just replace Hangouts in the future? We don’t know and Google hasn’t given any indication of this.
Google is hoping to make a dent in the messaging space with Allo and Duo, but there’s no doubt they will have to fend off some tough competition.