Google Allo: Can the new chat app outsmart WhatsApp and iMessage?
Google launched Allo alongside its new video calling app Duo at its developer’s conference Credit: Google
Google has launched a smart messaging app called Allo that it hopes will rival WhatsApp, Facebook’s Messenger and Apple’s iMessage.
Where Allo differs from these already popular messaging apps is in its “smart” abilities: it can reply to messages for you and has an in-app assistant called “@google” that can search the internet, play videos and offer restaurant suggestions.
The app, which is available for iOS and Android users, draws on Google’s machine learning software to learn how its users talk in order to generate more appropriate suggested responses over time.
Google’s Allo suggests responses for you based on what it sees in messages. This picture is actually a sunset, but let’s not be pedantic Credit: Screenshot/Google
As well as offering responses, artificial intelligence also underpins the virtual assistant, which can be called upon to provide directions, topical information such as news and weather, restaurant and flight information, and in-message games.
Google Allo’s smart assistant responds to voice and written commands Credit: Screenshot/Google
“Too often we have to hit pause on our conversation — whether it’s to check the status of a flight or look up that new pizza joint,” said Google. “We wanted to create a messaging app that could help you keep the conversation going, suggesting responses while you’re on the go and providing information you need to help you get things done.”
Google recently launched a video calling app called Duo that is part of the same attempt to outstrip the most popular communications channels.
How it works
Users are not required to have a Google account to use Allo, but can sign up to it with a mobile phone number — making it a bit more like WhatsApp and iMessage than Hangouts or Messenger.
Once you have downloaded the Allo app, you will need to give it permission to access your contacts so you can start group or individual conversations.
There are three different styles of chat in Allo: normal messaging, a direct conversation with the virtual assistant, and “incognito chats”, which are end-to-end encrypted and feature disappearing messages. When you receive an incognito message the notification won’t say who it is from or reveal any of the contents.
As with other messaging apps you can send images, video, voice messages and a custom-designed selection of stickers.
To call on the virtual assistant you will need to start the message with “@google” and type in fairly clear commands. Suggested responses will automatically appear above the keyboard.
The 5 best features of Allo
1. The @google Asistant
Google’s virtual assistant can pull information from the internet, embed YouTube videos within a chat and provide up-to-the-minute information.
Google’s Assistant can offer flight information as well as nearby restaurants, hotels and other businesses Credit: Screenshot/Google
You can ask @google private questions in the virtual assistant’s dedicated channel, such as “What are the headlines right now?” and “What’s the weather for today like?”
@google can provide the news, weather, games and translations Credit: Screenshot/Google
Or you can call on the Assistant within messages to your friends. For example, you can say “@google What restaurants are near us?” or “@google can you play us Bon Iver’s latest YouTube video?”
Allo integrates with Google’s YouTube, Maps and Translate among other services Credit: Screenshot/Google
Built with machine learning, @google will is designed to get better with time. Google says the Assistant that is now available in Allo is a “preview” of an advanced AI virtual assistant that can answer your questions and provide information within messages.
2. Automatic responses
The app can suggest automatic replies to save users time when they’re on the move. The following conversation was written entirely with Google’s suggested messages.
Google’s suggested responses are intially bland Credit: Screenshot/Google
While the suggested messages may appear initially bland, the software that powers them contains machine learning that should pick up each users’ idioms the more you provide it with information.
“Whether you’re a ‘haha’ or ‘lol’ kid of person, Smart Reply will improve over time and adjust to your style of conversation,” said Google.
4. Image recognition
Allo also draws on Google’s image recognition software for Smart Reply, meaning that it can spot the difference between a cat or baby and suggest responses such as “aww cute baby”.
The app has picture recognition built into it that informs its replies Credit: Screenshot/Google
5. Image illustration and different sized messages
Google’s Allo also contains some of the playful features of Apple’s new iMessage and Facebook’s Messenger, such as the ability to scribble on pictures, send larger and smaller versions of text messages, and custom-designed stickers.
Send large and small messages in Allo by holding the send button and dragging upwards or downwards respectively Credit: Screenshot/Google
Can it succeed?
Allo is far from Google’s first attempt at a messaging app, but it is designed to pull in social users as opposed to the office workers that tend to use Hangouts, which runs through Google email accounts.
The key unique feature of the app is the smart assistant, which can pull information into conversations quickly. Other platforms are moving towards smarter messaging, with Apple introducing third party apps for iMessage and Facebook launching bots for Messenger. But neither of those are quite as useful and easy as Allo’s @google.
As Allo works on both iOS and Android, and with phone numbers it is arguably more accessible than either iMessage or Messenger.
The main barrier to adoption, however, is likely to be how many people actually download it: iMessage, for example, is installed on every iOS device, giving Apple a clear advantage among iPhone users, while Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are both used by more than one billion people each.
Google Allo is available starting from today.
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Originally published at www.telegraph.co.uk on September 21, 2016.