Google already has the messaging apps Hangouts and Messenger, but that didn’t stop it from debuting yet another on Wednesday at the opening of Google I/O 2016. It’s called Allo, and it’s perhaps Google’s most ambitious attempt to converge its artificial intelligence smarts, deep integration with third-party services and partners, and person-to-person messaging features into a streamlined, seamless experience.
Allo “introduces fun new ways to express yourself” in conversations with friends and family, said Engineering Director for Communication Products Erik Kay. How, exactly? You can scribble on photos, for one, much like Snapchat’s “doodle” feature. And in addition to new emoji and Facebook Messenger-like stickers Google commissioned from “artists and content producers around the world,” Allo has a “whisper/shout” feature lets you convey the importance of a reply a bit more visually. Want to let a friend know you’re really excited for their new job promotion? You can type a response — e.g.,”awesome” — and then tap and drag the Send button upward to enlarge the text. Feeling jealous and want to express indifference? Shrink it by dragging downward.
Allo’s smarts don’t stop there. Google has incorporated artificial intelligence in Google Assistant, a component within conversations that aims to “increase your productivity” by “letting you type less.” One facet is Smart Replies, a contextually-aware, machine learning-powered tool that serves up relevant replies to e-mail and text messages. It isn’t new — Smart Replies launched in Google’s Inbox client earlier this year — but the feature’s picked up a few new tricks in Allo. It’ll “learn over time” to suggest replies that better approximate your tone and manner of expression, Kay said, and tap into Google’s image recognition tech to “understand the content and context of images.” If your sister sends you a snap of her new golden retriever puppy, for instance, Smart Reply can suggest replies like “cute dog” and “nice golden retriever.” It’s even nuanced enough to recognize tiny details like clams in a bowl of linguine.
Allo is not just a new messaging app, Kay said. It’s also a way to interact directly with Knowledge Graph, Google’s hyper-connected search platform, in order to “get things done” and “keep conversations going.” In group messages, it can recommend nearby restaurants in a horizontal, image-rich grid that all participants can see, and even place reservations through apps like OpenTable. And one-on-one, it’s more functional: Start a conversation with Google Assistant using the handle @google and you can ask questions like “Did my team win?” to get the latest scores for the professional sports you follow, or “Show me a trailer for Angry Birds,” to get a playable, in-line YouTube link to the aforementioned video. You can even play games: The “emoji game” demonstrated on stage has you guess a movie title from a series of emoji.
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Allo is not sacrificing security at the cost of new features, Kay stressed. In fact, it’s getting a few boosts in that area: Every conversation is end-to-end encrypted, and Allo sports an “incognito mode” makes messages expire and toggles off chat notifications.
If Allo seems like a mishmash of Google Now, Hangouts, and Snapchat, that’s not far off. Google’s current messaging efforts have so far been met with little enthusiasm, and the company’s repeatedly failed to make inroads against giants in the space like Apple’s iMessage or Facebook’s Messenger. Allo is in many ways a fresh start: It seems slick, fast, and fluid, features bots to help accomplish tasks in line, and packs plenty of multimedia and emoji. Google may be shedding a lot of history in abandoning Hangouts for Allo, but its also shedding baggage. That, the company must believe, is more important.
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Allo’s heading to Android and iOS “this summer” along with Duo, a Google’s new one-on-one video chat app.