Google Allo (for iPhone)

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No one knows what the next big thing in tech will be, but I suspect that it might be machine learning-powered chatbots like the Google Assistant found in the search giant's iPhone app Allo. At its core, Allo is a chat application like most others, but the Google Assistant is intended to integrate search tools directly into the conversation. It's a revolutionary idea, but one that comes up a little short when compared with iOS 10's own Messages app.

'Ello, Allo
I tested Allo on both an iPhone 6 and a Nexus 5x, and had no trouble sending messages between the two devices. Google wants everyone to get in on Allo, and makes a considerable effort to bring the new service to both platforms simultaneously. I go into great detail about Allo and what it does (and doesn't) do in the review of Allo for Android, so I'll just summarize here.

It's important to understand that Allo is only for text messaging. Google's companion video chat service is Google Duo. Allo's design is typically Google, in that it uses lots of white space and pops of color. It's also very fast and responsive, with elements leaping to your touch. It's an excellent experience. The app has all the usual bells and whistles of modern chat services, including stickers, and you can also send video, audio clips, photos, and emoji with ease. Allo includes eerily human canned text responses that will allegedly sound more like you over time as the service learns. I felt oddly compelled not to use the canned responses, because they felt too much like actual speech in my testing.

There are three types of messages in Allo: standard, person-to-person messages; Incognito messages; and Group messages. Group Messages smartly let any member leave or add members, or just mute the page. I particularly like the Incognito mode, which uses the Signal protocol to secure messages with end-to-end encryption. Allo also offers an effortless system for making posts that delete themselves automatically, similar to Snapchat.

If the person you want to chat with doesn't have Allo, the app will send them a SMS text message for free. That's handy, and helps make Allo more accessible. But the SMS messages, which include a nudge for the recipient to download Allo, come from what appears to be a randomly selected number. I've found recipients to be bewildered, rather than grateful, to get these messages.

Allo's most unique feature is the Google Assistant. Like Siri or Cortana, it's a digital assistant designed to integrate Google's search results directly into your conversations. If, while chatting with your friend, you decide that you'd like to see a movie tonight, a colorful Google Assistant icon appears offering nearby showtimes. Tap it, and cards expand revealing your options.

You can talk directly to the Google Assistant in any conversation using the @Google command. It's pretty good at parsing instructions and requests, and can even be used to clarify search results. By saying "@google closer," I narrowed a search field of restaurants from .3 miles to .2 miles, for example. You can also chat directly with the Google Assistant in a dedicated channel.

Allo on iPhone
For the most part, the Allo iPhone experience is identical to that on the Android app. One thing iPhone users can't do that Android users can is draw on pictures before sending them via the app. It's a very odd omission, and one I hope Google rectifies soon.

The Google Assistant can help you find a movie, but if you actually want to buy tickets, you'll have to do it from Chrome. If Allo had launched back when it was announced at Google I/O in May, it would have been much more impressive, but the default messaging experience on Apple just feels more capable, since it doesn't force you to leave Messages and open another app.

Just last week, I tested the new iOS 10, which includes a completely overhauled version of the default Messages app. It now includes stickers, animated effects, and third-party app integrations. This last point is critical, since you can now access apps like Fandango from within Messages. Siri, too, is able to use third-party apps to carry out tasks. Booking tickets with Fandango or sending money via Venmo are handled within the app.

Google Allo (for iPhone)The Allo Assistant's ability to divine when it's appropriate to respond is, to me, more important than what it can actually do. Unfortunately, my experience was rather uneven. I said "I want to get lunch" during a test conversation with another Allo user, and the Assistant appeared but when I asked the same question a few hours later the Assistant was silent. Siri and Messages apps are always there, and always available.

And while I like Allo's sticker offerings, Facebook Messenger has far more, and far more tools built in to the experience. Telegram has a completely open sticker marketplace, where anyone can host stickers they create.

On the issue of security and Allo, some experts have said that Allo should have end-to-end encryption turned on by default (and not only in Incognito Mode). But Google is not alone in its approach. Facebook Messenger has a secure chat mode, similar to Allo's Incognito mode, that uses the Signal protocol to encrypt messages end-to-end. Others have pointed out that Google stores your Allo chats on its servers. The idea is to use them to better return search results and tweak other tools. Only when you delete conversations in Allo will Google remove them from its servers.

Any missives sent through the Messages app from iPhone to iPhone (or to another Mac) use Apple's iMessage system. This encrypts all messages end-to-end by default, and has done such a good job that the FBI has been complaining about it for years. The Signal app also offers end-to-end encryption on the iPhone, and it works cross platform, too.

Allo a No-Go?
Allo is full of potential. It has an excellent design, with spiffy selection of fun features. It also offers easy sign up, encrypted private messaging, and free SMS messaging. The Google Assistant shows off the power of machine learning, as well as a new paradigm for engaging with the services and information available on the Web.

Despite all that, Allo doesn't seem compelling enough to get people to sign up for yet another messaging service. Its free SMS messages are difficult for recipients to parse. And its central feature, the Google Assistant, is currently little more than dressed-up search results, and not much easier to use than Google Now. Third-party app integration is critical, and right now that's just not part of what the Google Assistant does. Finally, Allo has to compete against Google's own widely used Hangouts, which is tied directly to Google user's accounts and supports video and SMS messaging. The Android version gets a slightly higher score for its photo drawing feature, and because Allo just can't compete with iOS 10 Messages. For now, I'll continue to use Messages on my iPhone, Editors' Choice winner Facebook Messenger, and Telegram when I need to communicate outside of SMS.

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