Google announced the mobile chat application, Allo, at the Google I/O conference in 2016, promising a whole new way of interacting with Google. The integrated Google Assistant would integrate search into the text-messaging experience, letting you quickly find information and even make plans with your friends, all within the app. Stickers, emoji, and even secret messages were part of the promised mix, too. The final Android app delivers on all of those fronts, but it's still not up to the level of our top picks, Facebook Messenger and Apple's newly updated Messages app.
Google Allo is free and available for both Android and iOS, but only for phones. I had no trouble installing it on my Nexus 5x phone, but couldn't even locate the app using my Pixel C tablet. Note that several apps in Google Play already have the name Allo, and some look suspiciously similar to Google's offering. Check to make sure the app comes from Google before you download it.
Setting up Allo takes just a few seconds. The app automatically detects and confirms your phone number, which is your primary identifier. You're then prompted to snap a selfie and enter the name you want to appear in the app. Note that this is not a username and that your friends won't be able to search for it. Note also that Allo lives on your phone number, so you can't receive messages sent to your account on multiple devices as you can with Facebook Messenger.
When you first log in, you see some notifications from Allo, encouraging you to message your friends, that the app automatically detects. You can search for other users by their names, but only if their information is already in your Contacts list. Enter any phone number of an Allo user, and you can send them a message. This can be kind of tricky, because you might have a person in your contacts, but not have the phone number they used to sign up for Allo. Working it all out is a bit tedious, but it's a problem I've seen everywhere from the inter-Apple iMessage service to WhatsApp, to the secure messaging app, Signal.
Note that Allo is not interoperable with Google Hangouts. You can, however, send SMS messages to any number for free through Allo, provided that person is already in your Contacts list. If you try to send a sticker or image, however, the recipient is prompted to download the app. Editors' Choice winner Signal is also a full-blown SMS replacement app, though it's better known for its security chops.
Allo lacks a Web interface, so you're limited to using it on your phone. Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger both boast excellent Web options. Even WhatsApp has figured out an inventive work-around to its own system that lets you pair your phone with a website.
Allo feels very much like a Google app, with lots of whitespace and pops of vibrant colors. A search bar fills the top of the screen, which you can use to search your existing conversations. A hidden left panel gives you access to all the app's settings, including notifications. You can disassociate the service from Google account and phone number, which is handy should you need to move to a new device. Interestingly, the app works fine without an associated Google account. Tap an existing message thread to pick up where you left off, or tap the blue button at the bottom to start a new one-on-one or group chat.
Once you're in a chat, you shoot messages back and forth, along with stickers, emoji, pictures, videos, and audio clips. Each message is time stamped, though you'll have to tap the message to see it. Allo also uses read receipts, but doesn't list the time the message was read. Group chats let any user add new participants, or remove themselves.
The app sports an impressive array of stickers at launch, all with a distinctly international feel. I'm happy to say that all of the stickers appear to be free for now, but Facebook Messenger boasts a great many more high-quality sticker packs for free. The packs are easy to find and manage thanks to the integrated marketplace. Fans of sticker packs featuring popular characters and brands will be disappointed since Google's are all first-party stickers at launch. Is there much point to stickers without Pusheen? Just a few days after launch, the new Apple Messages app has a vast collection of sticker packs.
You can send photos from your library or snap fresh pics from inside Allo, too. On Android, you also have the option to draw and add text to your pictures before sending them off. (No dice, on iPhone, oddly.) It's simple stuff, but very well executed. Apple may have gone a bit overboard with all of the animations and GIF searching it crammed into iOS 10, but it's undeniable Messages does more than Allo. Where Apple Messages has animated bubbles and laser light shows, Allo just lets you adjust the size of text.
Taking a page from Inbox for Gmail, Allo includes automatic canned responses that you can tap to send. These even appear in the notifications in Android 7.0, making responding to messages a breeze. I was impressed at how life-like the messages sound. "I'm tired," I wrote. "Me too. Me too," was one of the canned responses.
I held a perfectly sensible conversation between two phones using nothing but these generated responses, which was a bit eerie. Spookier was the following exchange, made only with Google's suggested responses, that reads like an awkward conversation between unhappy lovers. It's hard for me not to read it as some kind of algorithmic indictment of the human struggle to ever know true intimacy and the emptiness of modern mass communication.
Assist Me, Google!
The standout feature, and the one that Google seems to be pegging its future on, is the Google Assistant. Like Siri or Alexa, the Google Assistant is meant to humanize data retrieval and connect you more seamlessly to the plethora of information and services available through the Web. In Allo, it's a chatbot, but Google has suggested that this "ambient search" will soon be available everywhere, including its forth-coming Amazon Echo competitor Google Home. There's nothing like it in smaller chat services and, for now, even Facebook has nothing comparable, though Skype has introduced third-party chatbots.
You can talk to the Google Assistant in a dedicated Allo channel. It's a good place to feel out its different functionalities, and using it might be faster and easier than simply searching for something in your browser. It's a little like Slack's dedicated channel for Slackbot.
Where the Google Assistant really comes into its own is, well, everywhere else. As you message back and forth with a friend or in a group chat, the Assistant watches and offers its help on occasion. "Want to get lunch?" I wrote my friend. A multicolored Google icon appeared that when tapped returned listings of restaurants nearby. From there I could tighten the search by tapping other options like "cheap" or "open now." I could also write my own search operators. By typing @google and saying "closer," the Assistant tightened my restaurant search radius from .3 miles to .2 miles.
Ask the Google Assistant what it can do, and it returns several cards showing the breadth of its powers. Finding movies and restaurants are the most obvious abilities, but the Assistant can also translate, get you sports scores, tell you the weather, and trigger actions on your device, such as setting an alarm. You can also play games with the Google Assistant. I tried one where it gave a description for an emoji and I tried to guess the answer, which is much harder than it sounds.
All that said, there are some real limitations to what you can do with the Assistant. For example, I started asking it questions about travel, and it suggested I ask it to help me catch a ride. I did, and it simply returned Google search results for "catch a ride." Requesting a ride via Lyft informed me that the command was something the Assistant had yet to learn.
I also had trouble acting on the information the Assistant provided. I could look up movies and find showtimes near me, but when it came to buying those tickets I was booted out of Allo and into Chrome, where I had to make my purchase on the Fandango website. The third-party app integration in iOS 10 Messages is much tighter. I was able to send money through Venmo and purchase tickets via Fandango all from within the app. No such luck with the Google Assistant. Comparing an Android service with an exclusively Apple one might not seem fair, but kicking me out of Allo to take action isn't really easier than if I had just opened Fandango.
During my time with the assistant, I sometimes felt like I was playing an old text adventure game where very specific wording is key. It asked me my favorite food and I said "Indian food," which it claimed "did not match the question."
I also found the Assistant surprisingly finicky about what calls it up. When I first typed "I want to get lunch." it gave me all kinds of options. A short while later, typing the same phrase yielded nothing. While it's little effort to summon the assistant (again, just type @google), the reality of ambient search feels unrealized so far.
Secret Messages and Privacy
Over the past few years, I've seen messaging services make privacy a bigger part of their offering. Facebook Messenger now offers encrypted chats, as does WhatsApp. Apple Messages have always had nd-to-end encryption, but that hasn't stopped a string of privacy-centric messengers like Signal and Telegram from taking the stage, too.
When Allo was announced, I was surprised to learn that it would include end-to-end encrypted messaging via the open-source Signal protocol.
The catch is that only messages sent in Incognito mode are encrypted in this way. That certainly will disappoint the truly security conscious, but such people probably aren't going to use a product from data-mining Google anyhow. Facebook Messenger and Telegram, among other messenger apps, also use an optional secure mode.
When you create an Incognito chat only you and the person you chat with can read the messages you send. Not even the Google Assistant can read your messages, and it's not available for use in this mode. For additional security, either participant can set a time limit for how long messages will last before they are deleted. This is similar to Snapchat and Wickr, but I prefer the way Allo handles it.
Messages last one hour by default, but the limit can be set to as little as 5 seconds or as long as a week. You can also switch this feature off entirely. The timer on each message doesn't start ticking until it's read. This ensures your messages can actually be read, although it does create the strange situation where you can no longer read messages you've sent, but your recipient can. I really like that you don't have to set the lifespan of each message individually. When you change the timer, a marker appears declaring the new lifespan for all messages sent from that point until it is changed again. In one chat, I initially set messages to last for 30 minutes. I then changed it to 30 seconds. My first round of messages sent under the 30-minute timer went untouched, but the message sent after the change to 30 seconds appeared and disappeared on schedule.
News outlets have reported that Google has changed how Allo will store your messages. At I/O, Google claimed that messages would stay on the company's servers for as little time as possible. Now it seems that's not the case, and your messages will remain until you choose to delete them. The goal, reportedly, is to provide the Google Assistant with more data in order to learn.
And then there's the Google Assistant, which is meant to learn as you use it. This makes Allo a lot like Gmail, which uses bots to read your emails in order to better target ads. While it's not clear how Google will use your chat data, it seems entirely possible that the Google Assistant might someday return advertisements along with useful data, similar to the ads that appear at the top of Google search results.
It's actually rather hard to say how serious any of these security complaints are. Since the eruption of mobile devices and apps, a huge amount of personal information has already been (and continues to be) gathered by companies. The entire process has been normalized for nearly all smartphone users. Personal information is the currency with which we now do business. Using nearly any service, especially a free service, means giving up some modicum of information. Consumers are usually offered a zero-sum scenario where privacy and security have to come at the cost of convenience.
Allo to the Future
Allo is a beautifully designed messaging app. It's fast, responsive, and has all the bells and whistles that every competitor offers. The Google Assistant puts Google's search powers right into your messaging and shows glimmers of something truly remarkable in how we interact with machines, information, and each other.
But Allo suffers from the same problem as Google Duo. It is, for now, just another messenger. Using it requires not only that you sign up, but also that you convince other people to sign up, too. Worse, it's "just another Google messenger," now standing alongside Hangouts, Gmail, and all the other ways you can communicate within Google. And though the Google Assistant is useful, it lacks critical third-party integrations, and amounts to little more than glorified search with some clever extras. For Allo to live up to its potential, it needs to connect with more services and, most importantly, Google must commit to making it the central messaging service for its ecosystem.
I'll keep Allo on my phone for now, because I think Google could do exciting things with it. But I suspect I won't be getting many new messages. I'll stick with Editors' Choice winner Facebook Messenger, my choice for over-the-top messaging, and I'll use Signal (also an Editors' Choice) when I need to make sure no one is listening.