Allo, Google’s AI-enhanced answer to ‘smart messaging’ on mobile, is here. Designed to keep users from straying outside the app to search for things on the internet, Allo is the first Google product to feature its AI “assistant.”
Suggestions from the assistant are meant to be conversational, and can be plugged into existing conversations or had between you and Google alone. Google is expected the start rolling out the assistant to other products this fall, starting with Google Home, as part of the company’s ongoing push toward AI. Allo comes on the heels of Duo, Google’s video calling app, which has been downloaded 10 million times since it was released last month. Taken together, the two represent Google’s attempt to grab some of the direct messaging market while integrating machine learning across its suite of consumer-oriented products. “We don’t see messaging as a solved problem,” said Nick Fox, Google’s vice president of communications products. Fox said Allo is about “getting things done right in your chat. We think the enabler here is AI.”
Fox stressed that the goal of Allo is to keep the automated suggestions simple and subtle, so as not to replace other apps or search generally, but rather to supplement them. Like Duo, Allo uses your cell phone number, so there’s no need to create a separate user account. Allo does associate with your existing Google account, however, giving it access to a host of personal information, such as images you’ve saved with Google’s cloud photo storage. The more you use the assistant, the more it learns about you. Once you tell Allo your favorite sports team, for example, you can recall news about the team without using its name. “Google has been a one on one experience for 18 years,” Fox said, adding that with Allo, “now it’s like multiplayer.”
When you turn Allo on, it asks for your location. This gives it the ability to search for things you might be likely to ask it for, such as the weather or nearby restaurants. Allo retains the context of a conversation when you query it , mimicking an actual conversation you’d have with a friend. Let’s say you invite someone to dinner via Allo, and your friend asks the assistant to find nearby restaurants. Both users would see the same results, and if one person wanted to see just the restaurants that are open or those with the highest rating, for example, the assistant would filter down results accordingly, all within the app itself.
The assistant gives two types of results. The first is what you’ve come to expect from any search engine, and includes basic information on the subject you’ve asked about. Beneath that is a row of suggested information based on what you asked, when you asked and what you’ve asked in the past. Throughout the app, results are doled out in “bite size snacks,” Fox said. Think of results less like a comprehensive Wikipedia page, and more direct responses to the question you’ve just asked. In addition to quickly surfacing web results, Allo lets you respond to messages with pre-determined phrases that are common replies to questions or prompts. So if your friend sends you a selfie, for example, an automated reply might be “What a great smile.”
The risk of any smart messaging system, Fox said, is that it gets in the way of the conversation. Google’s goal is to have its assistant be as unobtrusive as possible, while still adding an element of ease and simplicity that people have come to expect. “The user is in control,” he said. “That’s a theme throughout.”
Among the other features of Allo: Photos sent through the app fill up more than half your screen, and appear edge to edge width on your phone rather than in their own message bubble that needs to be opened. Allo’s “whisper” or “shout” functions allow you to control the size of text or emojis. In addition to all the standard emojis you’re familiar with, you can download a slew of “sticker packs,” featuring cartoon-like images created by artists Google has contracted with. Allo’s “incognito” mode features end-to-end encryption, and allows you or the person you are messaging with to set messages to expire. When set to incognito, Allo defaults to discreet notifications that don’t include the sender’s identity or content of the message until the app has been opened on your phone.
For now, the assistant won’t share personal information–such as photos you’ve stored in the cloud–with contacts you are messaging, though this will likely happen later as Google tweaks with limits on the type of information that’s shared. The assistant, which Google says it will begin rolling out in other products this fall, is in “preview” edition, and will prompt you for feedback on individual chats. If the person you are messaging doesn’t have the app installed, the message is still delivered via standard SMS text. The sender will get a notification saying the recipient doesn’t have Allo, and the recipient will see a link to download the app. Allo is available for both Android and iOS.