Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: Google's new messaging app, Allo, is great but most will never hear of it or use it

Google Allo is new chat app for Android and iPhone. It has the Google Assistant built in and it’s rolling out today and it's but 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). That is why this good app will just be fine, because you and maybe a hand full of friends will be the only ones using 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? 

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, 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.

Meet the Google Assistant

There are two ways of talking to the Google Assistant. You can chat directly at it, or you can ask it to join your chats by typing "@google" and asking it a question. Google is calling this a "Preview Edition" of the Assistant. That’s partially because this Assistant is still a little undefined in Google World: we know it’s in Allo, coming in the Amazon Echo competitor Google Home, and has some sort of relationship with Google Now. But beyond that the differences between the Assistant and Now and Search are really complicated.

Fortunately, talking to the Assistant in Allo is not complicated at all. You type your query, it answers, you type follow-up questions, and it answers those. It’s very, very good at web search; it also knows your upcoming flights from Gmail and your calendar and various other things you've told Google. It can tell you what restaurants are nearby and help your narrow down your preferences. If Google Search or Google Now is good at it, you can basically trust that the Google Assistant is good at it too.

Chatting with an assistant feels very different than tossing a phrase into a search box or barking commands at your phone after saying "Ok Google." It feels more intimate and more conversational. You’re more likely to type in complex questions and push the boundaries of what you’d expect to have answered. 

As you would in a chat with a friend, you can get annoyed with the Assistant when it doesn’t know what you’re talking about. Every time the Google Assistant responds, you get little suggested replies underneath it. These "suggestion chips" are shortcuts to manually typing out follow-up questions. You might ask for the weather, for example, and then want to follow up by seeing the weather for next week. The chips are helpful for learning what the Assistant can and can’t do. Every assistant requires a learning process to use it. Even though the Google Assistant is more flexible than Alexa or even Siri, it still takes some time to learn how to talk to it.

The other thing that appears after every reply from the Assistant are little thumbs-up and -down emojis. These give feedback to the Assistant itself. If you give it a thumbs down, you can follow up with an explanation of what the bot got wrong. Google says it will use that feedback to improve the Assistant.

You can also "invoke" the Assistant in your actual conversations with friends. By typing "@google," you’re sending a query and the results will be displayed to everybody in the chat. The Assistant won’t divulge your personal information here (eg. if you ask it to show you and your friend your next flight information), but it is handy for finding restaurants and such.

Last, Google has tried to give its Assistant some personality — albeit a rather anodyne one. It tells bad jokes, which are the best kind of jokes. It plays "guess what this series of emoji represents" games with you. It coyly refuses to tell you who to vote for.

A simple, good messaging app

Allo has many of the features that you’d expect from a modern messaging app — but it’s not the phantasmagoria of doodles and effects you now see in iMessage or Snapchat. In lieu of a GIF search, Google commissioned artists to create sticker packs. The interface for them looks heavily inspired by Line, the originator of stickers in a chat app. Some are animated, some are endearing, some are just weird. If you want to limit your embellishments to hearts, you can. If you prefer a twerking yellow humanoid bull, consider your life choices and then hit send.

Dragging your finger up and down on the send button embiggens or shrinks your text. On Android (but not iPhone), you can doodle on pictures before you send them — and those pictures show up full-bleed and sometimes oddly cropped. If you want, you can tick a box in settings to save all the photos you send and receive in your camera roll. There are little sent/received checkboxes next to every message, and you can long press on any message to get the full details about who saw it and when. It’s all (or at least most of) the basic stuff you’d expect in a messaging app in 2016.

There is one innovation I really like: the same smart replies that pop up with the Google Assistant also pop up in your regular chats. So when somebody texts you a question, you can just tap "yup" instead of typing it out. Or maybe "sure" or a thumbs-up emoji. Google keeps your chat logs on its servers until you delete them so that it can analyze them. It does that to make these smart replies better, and more likely to suggest the words (or emojis) you commonly use.

It can even give you smart replies for pictures. If somebody sends you a picture of a baby or a cat, Allo will try to recognize the content of the image and give you an "awww" as a smart reply. So the next time somebody says "so cute!" to you in Allo, you can take a moment to wonder whether they meant it enough to type it out or just hit a button than an algorithm provided to them. You’re welcome for that new brain complex.

One more feature to mention: Incognito mode. If you start a chat in incognito, Allo encrypts it "end-to-end" and does not store the contents of the chat on its servers. When you receive an incognito message, it doesn’t show the contents either in the system notification or in Allo’s home screen. And each incognito chat has a setting for optional message expiration — messages disappear anywhere from five seconds to a week after they’ve been read.

When Allo was announced the messaging app was presented as a step forward for privacy. Alongside the end-to-end-encrypted Incognito Mode, the Allo team talked about bold new message retention practices, storing messages only transiently rather than indefinitely.

But with the release of the app today, Google is backing off on some of those features.

The version of Allo rolling out today will store all non-incognito messages by default — a clear change from Google’s earlier statements that the app would only store messages transiently and in non-identifiable form. The records will now persist until the user actively deletes them, giving Google default access to a full history of conversations in the app. Users can also avoid the logging by using Allo’s Incognito Mode, which is still fully end-to-end encrypted and unchanged from the initial announcement.

Like Hangouts and Gmail, Allo messages will still be encrypted between the device and Google servers, and stored on servers using encryption that leaves the messages accessible to Google’s algorithms.

According to Google, the change was made to improve the Allo assistant’s smart reply feature, which generates suggested responses to a given conversation. Like most machine learning systems, the smart replies work better with more data. As the Allo team tested those replies, they decided the performance boost from permanently stored messages was worth giving up privacy benefits of transient storage.

The decision will also have significant consequences for law enforcement access to Allo messages. By default, Allo messages will now be accessible to lawful warrant requests, the same as message data in Gmail and Hangouts and location data collected by Android. The messages might not be there if the user had previously deleted them, or if the conversations took place in Incognito Mode — but in most cases, they will be.
So how is Allo

I started this review with "it's good but fine", and I absolutely mean it both ways: the app’s quality (It’s good) and the perilous situation Google finds itself in when it comes to messaging (making Allo fine); but if I were Google I’d be treating it that way. Over the years we’ve watched Google flail around in its attempts at social — witness Hangouts and Google Plus and what the time wasted on Google Plus did to Hangouts. But now, messaging is very much at the center of what we spend our time doing on phones, and Google doesn’t have access to that in the way it knows the web or our email. 

That’s Google’s problem, though. For you, the real question is simply this: Should you switch? And the answer is: Probably not yet. The Google Assistant shows promise and the chat stuff is perfectly good at what it sets out to do. I’m just not sure that it sets out to do enough. But we’ve seen Google swing for the fences before in messaging and watched it flop — three years ago it relaunched Google Hangouts before letting it languish.

I feel like Google isn’t ambitious enough, but I don’t actually begrudge Google for starting small. Allo’s messaging strategy needs a fresh start. Even though it’s fair to expect grander things, at least this thing is pretty good. Allo is playing in the minor leagues, but it's hitting some doubles and triples.

At some point, though, Google needs a messaging app home run.

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