Google Allo: yet another messaging app

Google announced Allo, its new messaging app, at I/O back in May, and launched it last week. I didn’t rush to download it because, frankly, I don’t need another messaging app. Right now on my phone I have Hangouts, which works well with my Gmail contacts, which are the majority of the people I want to communicate with, and WhatsApp, which I was basically bullied into using. I’ll get back to that in a moment. I also have Messenger for text and Google Voice for even more texts. Bottom line: I can already message anyone I want with the apps currently installed on my phone. 

But in the spirit of messaging adventure, I downloaded Allo. First it asked for permission to access Contacts, SMS, Storage, Camera, and Media, and wouldn’t continue until I granted the first three. By ‘wouldn’t continue’ I mean throwing me out to the app setting screen without a clear indication of what to do (i.e. go to permissions and allow everything.) I gather that research has indicated that users just ok every permission asked for but for those who don’t, this isn’t the best experience. Anyway, continuing through an easy phone-number verification, Allo asked me to either message a friend, start a group, or chat with the assistant.

Chatting opens up a list of my Google Contacts with everyone I ever entered, from my local Costco to my dentist, to my friends and husband. Surely, Google, you know better than to present these contacts alphabetically? Surely you know who I chat with most often on Hangouts and email most often? Allo adds to the scrolling misery by listing every number for every contact separately, so that it takes even longer to find the right contact. What I like about this interaction, though, is that Allo doesn’t care if my chosen recipient is on Allo or not, it just sends a message, routing it by SMS if necessary. The Verge says that it’s supposed to do something way more interesting and invoke Google’s new “app preview notification,” which should “shoot a notification directly to your Android device instead of going through SMS. Your friend will get a notification that looks and acts almost as if they had the app installed in the first place, message content and all. It means they won’t incur any SMS fees, either. Your recipient can reply within the notification, or tap on it to install the app.” This didn’t work to the friends I sent an Allo message to, but it sounds promising and a great way to help build an Allo network.

Discussing the weather with Google Assistant. I love the follow up bubbles.

Discussing the weather with Google Assistant. I love the follow up bubbles.

What I do love on Allo is Google Assistant, and I have a feeling we are going to be good friends. It’s easy to ask questions, replies have been spot on, and the assistant (shouldn’t have a catchier, shorter name?) suggests good follow up questions for some queries. For example, I asked about the weather, the assistant said to wear sunscreen as it is 84F and I was given the option to ask a few follow up questions, such as “what about this weekend”  It will need to get smarter, through, because as I ask “what time is the debate” I get the top few news links referring to the debate instead of the answer I needed. But this kind of machine learning and searching for information is what Google is great at and I’m sure it will improve greatly over the next few months. I also like that it can be invoked in group chats, especially useful when talking about where and when to meet and future, mutual events.

When is the debate?

When is the debate? I don’t need news, I need a time.

Finally, getting back to why I installed WhatsApp a few months ago. While I felt that I could message anyone I needed, it turns out that a majority of conversations between friends and family were happening on WhatsApp, which I had not yet installed. In Israel, where many of them live, literally everyone uses WhatsApp, to the point where schools, PTAs, public events, and government- and municipal- sponsored activities are all coordinated via WhatsApp. While I could still message my friends on the other platforms, WhatsApp groups is where everything is happening, which is why I finally started using it. Just like Allo, WhatsApp identities are based on a mobile phone number and while WhatsApp doesn’t come with Allo’s friendly invites, WhatsApp already has all my (international) friends and family. There is no argument I can make to get them to switch to Allo, where the only benefit is having an assistant on tap. The inertia (and network) is strong with WhatsApp. I also don’t see my Hangouts or Facebook Messenger pals switching to Allo. Whether it can gain enough of a user base to become a messaging app of choice for any community or group remains to be seen.   

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