Google Allo is a start. Wait till it’s embedded in Android for it to be really interesting.

I’ve been trying out Allo, the new chat app from Google, over the last two days.

Google Allo’s key differentiator is the Google Assistant. Start a chat directly with the google assistant and it can help with a variety of things — set reminders, do a google search, set alarms, find places nearby and more.

It can also be invoked during a chat with a friend using @google. The query and answers are then visible to both, so you can jointly make a decision.

Allo has some benefits that are immediately clear. While Amazon and Apple have bet on voice as the key interface medium, voice has its limitations on the phone: Siri on the mac (launched with macOS sierra yesterday) gets most basic commands fine, but struggles with names and complex queries. There’s also ambient noise and privacy to consider when speaking out loud to a device.

Most reviews about Google Allo think that it’s slated to be a replacement to WhatsApp, and wonder how many are going to download yet another app to keep in touch with friends.

I think there’s a lot more in line for Allo. It’s designed to be another piece in the new ways we interact with mobiles.

Going beyond apps

There have been many articles over the years stating how we need to move beyond apps on our mobile phones. Users have limited space for apps on low-end phones. People often use a small subset of apps they download on their phones. Many apps are downloaded and never even opened.

App usage has its limitations. Most apps are shut off from others, with just a few specific way of interacting with other apps (usually through an embedded API for another app/website or through the share button.

A lot of this is not new, and both Google and Apple have tried moving beyond apps.

Notifications: Reactions to events

Over the years, both Apple and Google have made the notification system far more powerful.

Notifications are a way for the app to inform you of something important. While the initial notifications needed you to open the app and take action, Android Nougat now lets you take action (eg: reply to a message on WhatsApp or email) directly from the notification. This is a way of letting you get done with the immediate task at hand and get back to what you were doing earlier.

Image from http://beebom.com/android-n-vs-android-marshmallow/

However, there are some limitations to notifications.

Notifications are designed to be reactions to events. Good apps show you events that you’re interested in so you take action, or open the app to see more. Bad apps spam you so you swipe the notification away, and in extreme cases, just delete the app because the notifications are distracting.

What about actions that you want to take independent of stimuli from the phone? Notifications do not really help with that (though some apps like AnyDo try including a hanging notification that lets you take quick action from the notification tab).

Google Now: Anticipating your needs

The second piece is a smart digital assistant like Google Now, which are anticipatoryin nature.

With assistants like Google Now, the system tries looking through signals and presenting the most likely options in a card format. See snippets of news, when you need to leave for a meeting, upcoming flight details, weather information, traffic and more, based on time of the day, your location and other factors.

These are not perfect, but then, that’s always a difficult ask. Even with access to most of your digital information, it will be difficult to be 100% accurate. You also run the risk of freaking people out when they realize how much the system can learn about them.

Voice and chat based interface: The final piece

We’ve adapted to apps so we hardly see how much friction there is to app usage. Say you’re browsing Facebook, and suddenly remember that you have to call a friend the next day. You need to switch to a calendar/reminder app, enter a reminder and then get back to Facebook. Alternately, you could just browse Facebook and hope you’ll remember to call the friend anyway.

How do you solve this?

One way is to let users have a permanent app notification on the notification pane that acts as a modal interface. However, this clearly will not scale.

The other way is, what Siri and Google’s voice search try, to let you call out to them, finish the task and get back to what you were doing.

These still have the limitation of the interface getting what you ask right in various conditions.

Chat interfaces are a perfect complement to this.

Let’s go back to the situation earlier. Say you’re in the Facebook app and you want to set a reminder. What if you could just hold a button on the keyboard and up pops up the Google assistant as a quick chat interface. You can type in whatever format you are comfortable, or even speak to it, and it’ll quickly do what’s required. Get back to Facebook.

This still breaks the experience of using Facebook seamlessly. However, coupled with a few other changes in the works, this could be a powerful way of dealing with a lot of tasks.

My hypothesis is that the Google assistant from Allo will end up being part of Google Now, and will also be something that can be embedded in any Android app. This itself will act like a conduit framework that allows you to pull in functionality from other apps or websites. Say you’re in email, just pull up Google Assistant and you could immediately pull in info from a search, add a calendar invite, add a Google Drive file, etc. — all through a chat interface.

The possibilities are immense, and limited only by what makes sense in your app.

If Google gets its instant apps right, you can also use task flows entirely through the chat + embedded web interface.

While Facebook is probably trying the same using its Messenger, I think Allo might just tilt the scale in Google’s favor. Google could embed Allo/Google Assistant functionality deep into Android, and make it the default interface for chat based interactions (and of course, advertising dollars)

Now that would be something interesting to see pan out.

Disclaimer: These are my views, and I have no information about what Google is planning.

I’d love to hear what you think about this.

Shrinath is a Google Developer Expert (Product Strategy) and coaches/consults with startups and large firms on all aspects of product management, product marketing, business strategy and marketing. He has earlier held leadership roles in firms like Nokia, MapmyIndia and Motorola.

He is also a partner at Auspin Ventures, a design thinking in business firm that helps companies look at fresh opportunities and build ways of working that blend creative and analytical methods.

In case you’re interested in a coaching/consulting session for your firm on product management, marketing or design thinking, please drop a mail to shrinath.v@gmail.com.

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