If you have your ear to the ground, tech-wise, you might have heard of Allo, Google’s new messaging application for Android and iOS. No, it’s not a rebranded Hangouts. The two apps will exist independently alongside Duo, a video messaging app released in August. A lot of users are already stumped. Why need three apps when one (the most established) already does what the other two do? We’ll break it down for you.
The main purpose of Allo is one-on-one messaging, although group messaging is supported. It has a pleasantly simple layout and, way more importantly, optional end-to-end encryption. This “Incognito Mode” also features expiring chats (with settings ranging from 5 seconds to one week) and private notifications, meaning non-rich (displaying on your lock screen only that you have received a message). It has a real “secret agent” feel to it, and is obviously intended to steal some of the secure-messaging market share from BlackBerry. There has been some criticism from security experts, including one Mr. Snowden, regarding Allo’s encryption feature not being activated by default and requiring a special “mode” to be entered. More fun, less useful features include changes in text size (by long-pressing the send button until a small slider bar appears) and the ability to send a tiny Google Map with a dropped pin on your current location. Allo also has an odd “Smart Reply” feature that utilizes Google’s impressive machine learning algorithms to predict responses for you, depending on context and your previous replies. One example even showed Smart Reply suggesting responses to a received photo, allowing you to easily pretend to care about your friend’s child doing something mildly interesting. However, until Smart Reply gets to know you, the suggested replies are rather bland. Here’s a thrilling snippet of conversation between my editor and I using only suggested responses.
Allo’s main intention seems to be to show off a preview of the new Google Assistant, before it appears in Google Home (Google’s response to Amazon Echo) and future Android Wear smartwatches. It’s an expansion of Google Now, the system of “cards” showing information Google thinks you’ll be interested in combined with voice search. Assistant expands on that through Allo, turning the process into a two-way conversation (versus the prior “Let Me Google That For You” method) and…Assistant is pretty darn good at talking. Telling Assistant “I want to go to Boston” brings up landmarks in Boston along with suggestions to look up flights, hotels, and more. Complaining “I’m hungry!” shows you restaurants in the area along with ratings; a quick tap opens up Maps and drop a pin. You’ll also be asked what you’re in the mood for, and this information is saved for the future as the app gets to know you. Assistant, along with competitors Siri and Cortana, has a long way to go before being a true personal assistant (I tried getting it to book me a flight, to no avail) but it’s a step in the right direction for Google. This kind of competition is healthy and will push the three companies into making some serious breakthroughs in the future.
Duo is simply a spinoff of the Hangouts video chat, again using a streamlined layout. Android users have the “Knock Knock” feature, which shows the recipient the video feed of the caller before they pick up. Google says this is to “make calls feel more like an invitation rather than an interruption” but also means that you better get your finger out of your nose before you press the Call button (the feature can also be switched off). Duo streams video in HD 720p but also optimized depending on connection, and is able to seamlessly switch between WiFi and mobile data.
The most important thing about these new applications is that nothing is changed for those who don’t want it. This spinning-off isn’t like Facebook forcing you to download its Messenger app. Hangouts is still around and still feature-rich, but Allo is designed just for those who wish to text chat one-on-one (securely, if needed) or in small groups, and Duo for one-on-one video chat. The main focus of Hangouts will remain cross-platform functionality (being able to talk via a laptop or a cell phone), group chat and video chat, and free voice calling. Users are free to download one or all three and use them how they wish, and facilitates the sort of custom user experience Google is trying to expound through its Android platform.