Aldo Agostinelli

Earlier this week, Google entered the messaging app market with the launch of Google Allo.

Google Allo is billed as a smarter messaging app, which uses artificial intelligence to improve the group messaging experience. Google’s official blog states that ‘Google Allo can help you make plans, find information, and express yourself more easily in chat. And the more you use it, the more it improves over time’.

But how does this translate to a benefit that will tempt users away from Facebook, WhatsApp and (in offices) Slack? The messaging app market is already crowded (plus, it’s a subset of the far more crowded social network market). Moreover, newcomers must tempt a critical mass of users to become established. Not even Google CEO Sundar Pichai can use Allo if his best friend isn’t on it.

First, Google Allo positions itself as something that can help you make plans and find information. The app introduces a ‘preview addition’ of the new Google Assistant. This is just like Siri, Cortana or Hello Google. However, the assistant can be summoned into any group chat by typing @Google. This is a clear advantage to users. When looking for, say, sushi restaurants for dinner with friends, being able to review search results together speeds up the decision making process. What’s more, it’s Google doing what Google does best: search is a potential advantage over all messaging apps, no matter how established. And the King of search engines is Google. If Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp launch a search function, it will either be a poor rival to Google, or have to borrow its technology.

However, when we come to examine the suggestion that Google Allo can ‘help you express yourself more easily in a group chat’, in my opinion, things don’t look so good.

The ability to send stickers and drawings is on par with the latest iOs update and updates to the likes of Facebook and Twitter. However, it offers nothing new and therefore is not an incentive to download the app. Another way Allo helps users express themselves is via Smart Reply: Smart Reply is designed to ‘make it easier for you to respond quickly and keep the conversation going, even when you’re on the go’. Being able to send a quick ‘yes’ to confirm you’re on your way is useful – but nothing any other messaging app can’t do.

However, Smart Reply’s ability to suggest responses to photos seems not only pointless, but in some ways, slightly sinister. According to Google’s blog, ‘If your friend sends you a photo of their pet, you might see Smart Reply suggestions like “aww cute!”. When talking to friends, is this ever necessary? There continues to be a lot of discussion around technology helping to connect people, but sometimes at the expense of being personable and having a genuine connection – and these auto-generated responses certainly don’t help. I believe most people want their friends’ responses to come from their friends rather than an artificially intelligent ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s exciting to see artificial intelligence being applied to personal messaging, but applying it in this way risks turning friendly conversations into interactions with chat bots. Which is great for Google, but not so great for the most important factor in all digital marketing: the consumer.

Google would do better to concentrate their artificial intelligence efforts on Allo’s intelligent search. Whilst the in-chat search function is very useful, it still needs improvements. The New York Times christened Allo ‘The Unhelpful Assistant’ following misunderstandings with search commands and shortcomings in search results. This incarnation of Google Assistant is a preview version, so this is natural. In future updates, I’d like to see a truly intelligent search function embedded in the service.

Aldo Agostinelli