Google Allo is new chat app for Android and iPhone. It has the Google Assistant built in and it’s rolling out today. I’ve been using it for a few days now, and it’s fine. Totally, completely fine. It does the things you expect from a messaging app: sends pictures, lets you share fun stickers, works for group chats, and so on. If for some reason you abhor the dozen or so widely used chat apps out there today, maybe Allo will appeal to you (assuming you can also get your friends to use it).
But to succeed, Google needs much more than fine. It needs something special. It needs something to make users switch away from those other apps (and to redeem itself after the slow, sad slide of Google Hangouts). What could Google do to give itself an advantage? What does Google have in its arsenal of capabilities?
Well, it has Google. Or more specifically, the new Google Assistant, which leverages Google’s machine learning capabilities to answer your questions.
But is the ability to converse with what might be the smartest of all smart bots — and to have it participate in your conversations when you summon it — enough to get you to switch away from whatever you’re currently using? After a few days of using it, my answer for the moment is no.
That doesn’t mean I think Allo is bad or that the assistant is bad. They’re just something else: completely fresh starts. And as with any app that’s just getting started, it still needs work.
How Allo works
If you didn’t catch the news when Google first announced Allo back in May, I’m going to start with the basics. How a messaging app works can be surprisingly complicated, so bear with me a bit as I go through it. There are some neat little surprises in how Google decided to set Allo up — but if you really don’t care about things like SMS relay, I won’t blame you if you skip on down to the next section.
Allo is available starting today on both Android phones and iPhones — but that’s it. Google hasn’t made it available on the web, on desktop, or on tablets. In fact, you can’t even use the same account on multiple phones. The Google Assistant will only be available in English to start, but it will be coming to more countries soon.
Allo identifies you by your phone number (which it verifies with a text message), which is great because it means you don’t have to fiddle with account setup. You can associate your Allo account with your main Google ID (for me, this happened automatically) or keep it separate if you’d prefer that.
The downside to this system, as I said above, is that it’s only going to work on your phone. Google says it will look to expand Allo to other platforms eventually. For me, that’s a nonstarter. I can’t think of a single messaging app I use that doesn’t have a web or desktop version that I use all the time — heck, even Android SMS can work with third-party apps to let you converse from your big keyboard. But maybe I’m the weird one — in today’s mobile-first / mobile-only world, Google may do just fine.
On the other hand, that aggressive simplification has benefits. For example, Allo also doesn’t have any contact lists for you to maintain. It just piggybacks off your phone’s main contacts app. If your contact has Allo installed, they’ll show up on top.
If your contact doesn’t have the app installed, one of two things happen. Both are actually kind of interesting.
If they’re on an iPhone, they’ll receive an SMS with your name, the contents of your message, and a link to download the app. They can then download it or — if they want — just reply via SMS. Google has set up a full SMS relay so that your recalcitrant friends can avoid installing it at all if they don’t want to.
If they’re on an Android phone, something new and intriguing happens. Google is calling it an “app preview notification,” and basically it shoots 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.
Why go into this much detail on how all this works? Beyond the interesting technical details, it illustrates the lengths to which Google must go to give Allo even a small chance of building up a critical mass of people to try a new messaging app. It’s radically, almost violently unclear how Allo is going to take on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Line, iMessage, and all the rest. Many of these apps have more than a billion users, and so the Big Question for Google is how it’s going to get Allo distributed to an equally large number of people. We don’t know yet whether it will be installed by default on Android devices — we only know that Google decided not to hijack SMS like Apple’s iMessage does.
This system of pushing out the full contents of messages while still offering an easy way to download is a clever way of creating a network effect. Having somebody demand you install an app to chat is annoying. Getting a text you can’t do anything with unless you install an app is also annoying. I don’t know if Google’s approach will actually work to acquire users, but it’s a much more coherent strategy than we heard back in May.
Even if it does work, it won’t be the real draw for Allo. That job falls to the Google Assistant, ostensibly the reason Allo exists in the first place.