The first thing that happened when I downloaded Allo, only a few seconds after I had given Google’s new messaging app my phone number and snapped a selfie for my profile pic, is I got a cheery message from a new friend. “Hi David Pierce!” it said, in white letters on a blue bubbly background. “I’m your Google Assistant.” Then another message, because my new Google Assistant evidently understands that you should never send a single text with more than two sentences, because what is this, Dostoevsky? “I can help you find what you need and get things done,” it read. One more message about using my location, and then a little white bubble pops up on my side of the conversation: “OK, go on,” it said. So I tapped it, the button turned the aqua color of my sent messages, and Google and I were off and running.
The Google Assistant is everyone’s first friend in Allo. It’s also the most important piece of this new messaging app, which is out today for iOS and Android, because it’s precisely the thing Google hopes will separate Allo from the many messaging apps that already exist–all of which are much more popular than Allo. “We think we’re on the cusp of messaging version two,” says Nick Fox, who oversees communication products at Google. “Messaging is going from being just about sending text to really expressing yourself much more fully, much more broadly, much more naturally. And then to getting stuff done in your chats.” Google, Fox says, is perfectly positioned to help you turn your texts into something much more powerful.
The app itself is incredibly simple and straightforward, just like Google’s video-chat app Duo. The homescreen is a running list of all your active conversations, plus a button for starting a new one. You can chat alone with the Assistant, one-on-one with someone, or in a group of up to 200 people. If the person you contact doesn’t have Allo, it sends them a text instead. Conversations load quickly, messages send instantly, and you can send a message so the text either shows up large or small. (Allo also has some really, really fantastic stickers.) If you’re plotting governmental overthrow, you can open an incognito chat, which is both end-to-end encrypted and set to automatically delete after a period of time. Other than some beta-app crashiness there’s not much to complain about regarding the standard messaging experience. There’s not much to say at all, really. It’s a messaging app.
It’s inside your conversations that Google really inserts itself. When you receive a message, Allo will often pop up those clear bubbles with suggested replies. Sometimes they’re straightforward, like when you get a “Are you coming?” text and Allo suggests you respond “On my way.” Other times they’re odd but impressive, like when Fox sent me a picture of his grinning son wearing two pairs of sunglasses, and Allo prompted me to respond either “Sunny smile” or with the sunglasses-wearing cool guy emoji. Sometimes they’re weird and useless, just dropping “Yeah” when it doesn’t know what else to say.
You can bring the Assistant into any conversation at any time. Just start a message with “@google” followed by, well, just about anything. It can search for restaurants, check flight statuses, answer questions, translate text, play games, and more (“@google what can you do?” gives you the whole list). It’ll set reminders, give directions, tell stupid jokes. Google becomes another party in your conversation, sharing queries and results so everyone can see.
Many messaging apps are now filled with functionality like this, so-called chatbots that can help you do everything from get a ride to order flowers to book a flight to buy a tiger. Fox doesn’t want to do most of those things. “Booking a flight is actually pretty complicated inside a messaging app,” he says. Google is more interested in using the Assistant as a launchpad for other apps, rather than replace them. “We’re not trying to create Allo in a way that subsumes every other app,” Fox says, “but it can be quite useful as a connective fiber across many things.” Quick things like flight status, you can do in Allo, but for booking a whole flight, you’d probably rather look at the Hipmunk chart anyway. And who in the world wants to buy flowers over chat?
Over time, Fox says, the assistant can even start to be proactive, so that when you and your friend start debating sushi tonight Google can pop in and offer some recommendations. Right now, that’s either turned off or very cautious, and I never had it pop up in my testing. Which is good, because the Google Assistant is kind of an idiot sometimes.
The Assistant struggles even with simple things. I have a trip to Colombia coming soon, and if I said “@google when do I leave for Bogota,” it would pull my flight info out of my email. (This is one of the core advantages Google has in chatbots: it can comb through all the data from your email, your docs, and your search history.) But if I asked “when is my flight?” or failed to specify Bogota, it would just fail and offer up useless web results for Bogota. When my girlfriend and I were looking for a good cheese plate, all Allo would offer was a pizza place, with no way to make it find something else. I asked for another option, and got…a web result for another-option.com.
All that aside, using the assistant with even one other person gets complicated, as you’re both pressing buttons, refining search results, or playing games together. It just devolves into noise. When I mention this to Fox, he readily agrees. “The experience of interacting with the assistant with 200 people can be a bit overwhelming. In general, groups get sort of overwhelming as they get to that many people.” But he sees this as a long-term opportunity: No one’s ever solved group chat, and Allo could be the first.
The Assistant is brand new, and Fox is careful to note that this isn’t even a full launch of the product. “Over time, we see [the assistant] being available across a number of surfaces,” he says. That includes Google Home, Android phones, and more. “We want it to be a consistent experience across those surfaces, but tuned to the surface as it makes sense.” He calls Allo a preview of the Assistant, rather than its grand unveiling. It’s going to get better as people use it, because that’s how this kind of tech works. That’s all fine, except that it doesn’t help make Allo so immediately useful and exciting that users will have to download it. Which is what Allo really needs.
Facebook Messenger has more than a billion users. So does WhatsApp. WeChat, Kik, Viber, Line, Telegram, GroupMe, iMessage, and lots of other apps all have more users than Allo does. And many are also trying to become the sort of inclusive platform Allo wants to be. “Most of these companies are fundamentally interested in holding you within their environment,” says Alan Black, a computer scientist and professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute. “Apple wants you to only use Apple products and be content within there, Facebook wants you to remain on Facebook and not go somewhere else.” Once you’ve bought into one ecosystem, especially if it’s also where your friends are, it becomes very hard to leave.
The way Fox sees it, though, Google’s not late to the game. He sees the switch from texting to “smart messaging” as similar to the switch from cellphones to smartphones. The changes are big enough, he seems to think, that a whole new set of winners could emerge.
Allo has a long road ahead of it, but Google’s obviously committed to it. After years of messaging mess, the company seems to have finally decided that Hangouts is for businesses, and Allo and Duo are for regular people. (Google Voice is for self-loathing masochists.) Right now, Allo’s a really simple texting replacement with some neat added features; someday, it could be the connective fiber between all of Google’s products, all of your friends, and all the information in the world. “It’s very clear that the whole messenger thing is,” Black says, “this is a way to communicate that will eventually link you with everything.” Chat is the Internet, and the Internet is chat.