For instant messaging services, 2016 has been a landmark year of sorts. Both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger crossed the 1-billion-active-user milestone, and Apple upgraded the iMessage. Now Google has entered the fray with Allo, its new messaging platform. When Google announced plans to launch Allo, earlier this year, many were not so sure about the wisdom in launching yet another chat app.
And, as we know, Google has already tried its hand at many messaging apps. Google Talk and Hangouts are among the more memorable ones, along with Google+ messaging. In fact, when Allo was released last week, there were doubts about the fate of Hangouts.
But a week since Allo's release, it has become clear that Google is playing a different game. Sure, they want more and more people to use the app. But they are also treating it as a machine learning platform for Google Assistant, Google's intelligent personal assistant that you can talk to and ask to perform various functions on your handheld device.
What do you get from Allo as a messenger? All the basic stuff you can expect from a chat app, such as sending messages, creating groups, sharing pictures, drawing on them, sending locations and stickers to other users and more.
Allo can also resize the text while sending it. Google calls the messages with the bigger fonts, 'shouting' and the messages with the smaller fonts 'whispering'.
Some features in other chat apps though, such as timestamps, quoting, and replying, are missing in Allo. Allo provides a pleasing interface, engaging animations and quality usage experience. But then your friends are all either using WhatsApp or Facebook messenger or, Telegram, Hike or Line.
Why should anyone switch? Google would say, because of the new Google Assistant. An evolved version of Google Now, the Assistant lets you chat with the bot in a separate conversation or call it, all while chatting with friends on Allo. It is like your best friend on hotline in a messenger.
You can ask Assistant for restaurants nearby, set reminders, search the web, ask for scores and much more. Ask "What can you do for me?" and Assistant will give you a list of all the things it can do.
It can carry out instructions such as -- Remind me to take an umbrella in the morning if it is going to rain; Send me tech news every morning at 10; and Tell me the Manchester United score at half time.
You can do fun things too -- like play Rubik's Cube or emoji trivia and other games; or ask the Assistant to tell jokes or read poems. Each time you ask it new questions, you discover more about Assistant's abilities.
The good thing is that the conversations don't feel like a string of search terms. They feel like an actual conversation. Sure, many responses are off the charts, but you can provide quick feedback by pressing a thumb-down button.
Google, the original search engine behemoth, offers services such as YouTube, Gmail, Search, Maps and more. The one area it hadn't tapped was the messaging space. While Google Assistant's precursor, Google Now, was a robust service, it felt robotic. The voice search was very strong but it didn't feel as casual as Siri or Alexa.
The Mountain View based technology giant had indicated this year at Google IO, its annual developer conference, that it wanted the Assistant to be everywhere -- in Allo, Google Home, on Android phones and even in competitor Amazon's assistant Alexa. And for that to happen, it needs a lot of machine learning to improve Allo. Allo is a bet for Google to collect a lot of information about the consumer's conversational behaviour. And, eventually, build a platform for a great Assistant.
Right now, Allo records all your messages and stores it on the Google server for algorithmic processing. You have to explicitly delete chats to remove them from the server. Whistle blower Edward Snowden, has already warned people against using Allo because of this feature.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 21, 2016
Google has also included an incognito mode where you can chat with your friends privately. In this mode, all the messages would be encrypted end-to-end and users would have the option to set an expiration timer after which the chats will be deleted. However, you can't use Google Assistant in the incognito mode.
Allo has taken a leaf from Google's email app Inbox and has included smart reply. So, if someone asks, 'Do you want to catch up over coffee?' you have options such as, 'Where?', 'Sure', 'No'. Right now, many smart replies are downright laughable. But they will surely improve with time as Google gets more data to play with.
A report by FastDesignco suggests that research for Allo commenced in countries such as India and Indonesia, where a lot of business and personal conversations take place over chat apps. Part of the idea behind Allo is to not make the user leave the app to perform a task. So, now you don't need to jump to another app to search for a movie show or a restaurant.
"Messaging is so woven into our lives that you don't even think about how many things you do with it. As an industry, we've barely scratched the surface of what messaging can do," Jason Cornwell, lead for the UX for Allo, told FastDesignCo.
WeChat has achieved something great by creating an ecosystem in a messenger. So have Line and Kik in some countries. Facebook is trying to achieve it with its messenger bots and now Google has jumped into the fray with Allo.
The app has great potential -- including SMS, as in Apple's messaging system iMesssage, could give users some added incentive to jump on. Google could also place it into the default Android folder to gain more traction from its giant smartphone ecosystem. Right now, Allo is not in the position to be the top messaging app but it could be a great alternative you could keep handy.