Google Allo falls short of its lofty ambitions

Earlier this year at Google I/O 2016, we learned that the tech conglomerate had been planning another messaging app for us called Allo. Accompanied by a video messaging app called Duo, the two were presented as a one-two punch of mobile communication: Duo would be the cross-platform — for both Android and iOS — video messaging app (obviously meant to compete with Apple’s more ubiquitous FaceTime) while Allo would be the cross-platform messaging application like a version of iMessage for both Android and iOS. In theory, the idea was compelling, but, unfortunately, we had to wait until “this summer” to get our hands on the two apps.

It was Duo that was made available first, released to the public on August 15. Although it allegedly was the most-downloaded app in the Google Play Store for a while — dethroning juggernaut Pokémon Go, which was released the month before — the response was overwhelming luke-warm. The app seemed to be well-made and effective for what it was, but there wasn’t a lot to it and with there being so many well-established alternatives like Skype, Facebook Messenger, and Google’s own Hangouts, actual adoption of the video-chat platform was minimal. Speaking personally, I believe that only one of my contacts has Google Duo and it’s someone with whom I’m very unlikely to video chat anytime in the foreseeable future.

Google I/O Allo Duo
Photo courtesy of Engadget

But it was Allo that people were most excited about. The demonstrations of the app during Google I/O made Allo seem like a more feature-rich, cross-platform version of Google Messages, or like the lovechild of iMessage and Facebook Messenger, and the prospect of being able to have SMS conversations through this more advanced app was exciting. After much anticipation, Google finally released Allo on the very last day of summer (September 21), presumably so they could honor their promise to release both Allo and Duo by the end of summer. As expected, Android and iOS users scrambled to download the app and try it out, but many found themselves disappointed for one reason or another.

The first time you open Allo, you’re prompted to essentially set up the service. It prompts you for your phone number, which it verifies automatically via text message, before having you sign into your Google account. The impression you get from this setup process is that you’re signing up for some type of advanced SMS platform, which is sort of how Allo was billed. But that’s not actually the case.

For most people, it probably goes like this: You complete the setup process, and then the app introduces you to the Google Assistant, which is essentially Google Now on Tap embodied in a Siri-esque bot with which you can chat in a messaging thread like it’s someone you’re texting. Once you’re realized how gimmicky and severely limited Google Assistant really is, you text your husband or girlfriend or mom or brother or cousin or best friend or whoever it is you usually text. As you wait for a response, you start thinking about how cool it will be to essentially use Facebook Messenger or iMessage features in SMS. But then you notice that whoever you texted hasn’t messaged you back. Or if they did message back, it’s to ask who you ask. Weird, you think. Don’t they have your number saved in their phone?

Google Allo
Photo courtesy of BGR

When you send a message to someone who doesn’t have Allo, your number gets relayed through some type of server that strips away your phone number and replaces it with a random five-digit one. What’s more, your recipient sees a prompt appear that encourages them to download Allo so that they can respond via the Allo platform instead of through their default SMS client. If that person were to, instead, send a text response to your actual phone number, you wouldn’t receive that response in Allo; it would appear in that person’s thread in your default SMS client while Allo showed no new responses. Your recipient will have to respond to that bizarre five-digit number through which your SMS was relayed rather than your actual phone number. This lack of SMS integration is either an unforgivable oversight or part of a more sinister plot wherein Google wants us messaging one another using half a dozen different apps. I suppose the verification of your phone number during setup is merely for identification.

Allo definitely doesn’t want for features. Earlier this year, Google demonstrated that Google Assistant would be silently present in all conversations until prompted by one of the conversation participants for information (i.e., movie times, location information, directions, etc.) or until it detects something like a location name or movie title to which is responds by automatically inserting a card into the messaging thread to supply aforementioned information.

Google AssistantGoogle touts the Assistant as an artificial intelligence, which is supposedly apparent by the bot’s ability to decipher content and context even from the photos you send back and forth in Allo conversations; it also generates auto-responses for you based on how it thinks you might respond to a photo (“That’s cute!” “Yum!” “I’m ready!”). Of course, these features require both participants to be using Allo; if your recipient isn’t using it, only you will be able to see the Google Assistant’s input and response suggestions.

Expectedly, some people have expressed concern about Google Assistant. The assumption is that the Assistant is ever present in all your conversations, which is how it’s able to provide contextual information and suggestions; however, this has sparked some concerns about privacy. So Google also includes an incognito mode in Allo, which is very similar to the incognito mode in Chrome: An incognito thread gets end-to-end encryption, isn’t stored on your device or on Google’s servers, and can even be set to expire in a set amount of time similar to Snapchat.

Google Allo screenshots
Photo courtesy of WSJ

You can also talk directly with the Google Assistant in a dedicated messaging thread. Similar to using Google Now to look up movie times or to find information, you essentially “text” these commands directly to Google Assistant using quasi-natural language to get the information you need in conversation form. Google Assistant can set reminders, add events to your calendar, make reservations, and even play a variety of games with you to keep you entertained. Although the implementation seems a little forced at times, Google Assistant is probably the most impressive thing Allo has to offer.

When it comes down to it, Allo’s biggest problem is that it’s a proprietary messaging platform that’s completely separate from SMS, Hangouts, iMessage, and every other messaging platform you might use. In that way, Allo is more like WhatsApp or Telegram that it is the messaging app we all expected it to be. In other words, the one feature that would’ve all but guaranteed widespread adoption of Allo is absent, and that’s SMS integration.

Messaging apps
Photo courtesy of AndroidPIT

As I said above, there are plenty of proprietary messaging platforms available, including WhatsApp, Kik, Line, Telegram, Viber, and Hangouts to name just a few. With these messaging platforms, the messages you send and receive exist only in that platform’s server space and nowhere else. There’s no overlap between the platforms, so the conversations you have through Telegram are totally separate from your conversations through WhatsApp. And now you’ve got Allo, yet another platform to add to the list.

It’s when you think about what Allo should and could have been that it begins to get really frustrating. When it comes down to it, we didn’t need or want another messaging app. There are already far too many to keep up with, which is why SMS is so important to most people; it’s the true cross-platform messaging system that’s available on all phones, no matter what OS a phone might have. When you send an SMS to someone, you can be certain that person will receive it; if you want to send a WhatsApp message to someone, they’re only going to receive it if they have WhatsApp.

Instant messaging (IM) platforms like WhatsApp and the others I’ve listed are well-established. They’ve been around for quite some time, so most of the userbase continues using them simply out of habit and because they’ve already spent so much time with them. Especially for the people who are using a handful of these separate platforms daily, the last thing that anyone wants to do is add another one to the list. Adopting Allo is tantamount to voluntarily complicating your messaging habits; why are you going to start using more IM platforms when you really could just be using one?

Google already had apps that offered the functionality of both Allo and Duo: Hangouts is both a messaging and video-chat platform while Google Messenger is for SMS. Instead of revamping these existing apps — which already have an established userbase — Google decided to just make two news ones. And it seems like Google wants us to be using all of these messaging apps, even Hangouts, which is basically getting a tonal shift to be more business-oriented so that’s going to make it completely different from Duo.

Apparently, the backlash for Allo has been palpable. A development rep announced on Twitter that the company is taking note of all the feedback and feature requests people are making with the goal being to implement as many of these improvements as possible. However, it’s questionable whether we can expect SMS integration in Allo or not since this very same issue occurred with Hangouts; they added it to Hangouts at one point but removed it again.

Not surprisingly, there have been a lot of reviews of Allo to come out in the three days since its release with the vast majority either expressing disappointment or describing the app with words like “fine” as the Verge did in their review, which praised the Google Assistant as being the biggest motivator for using the app. In fact, CNET went as far as to say that Allo’s defining feature is Google Assistant while the rest of the app is a run-of-the-mill communication client. Over at Android Authority, Jimmy finds promise in Allo’s novelties such as the plethora of fun customization features: Whisper/Shout lets you decrease or increase the size of your text in your message so that it appears as if you’re whispering or shouting. In addition to your standard (and some new) emojis, there’s an impressive catalog of unique stickers that you can send. But even these unique features are that unique; they’re not things we’ve not seen in other messaging apps that have been around longer.

I will say this: Google’s Allo is an extremely smooth and attractive messaging app. In the little time I actually used it, Allo never once froze or crashed or hesitated when transitioning from screen to screen. It was always impressively responsive, even when using features like Whisper/Shout or navigating through the catalog of stickers.

Overall, I feel conflicted about Allo. If it was a cross-platform SMS app — meaning that Allo and its features could be used on both Android and iOS devices — I would be sold on Allo, without question. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and that’s very disappointing. It’s not like it couldn’t be done since Facebook Messenger can now be used for both Facebook messages and SMS; in other words, Google’s brand new Allo app is inferior to Facebook Messaging, the app from which Allo borrows many of its fun and customization features.

It actually surprises me that Duo would be the more compelling between the two new communication apps because, after Google announced them earlier in the year, I expected the reverse. As it stands, Allo is more in line with WhatsApp and Kik than it is anything else. Besides the Google Assistant, there’s not a single thing that Allo does that isn’t already offered by a more established app, so where’s the incentive? Why would a person go through the trouble of talking all their contacts into switching from Telegram to Allo only to have much the same experience? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just save yourself — and everyone else — the trouble and continue using what you’re using now? I’ll continue to keep an eye on Allo to see if Google adds SMS integration sometime in the near future, which I feel has a coin-toss of a chance. But as long as we’re unable to use Allo with the most universal mobile messaging system that exists (SMS), I’m pretty sure it’s only a matter of time until Allo is forgotten.

About the author

My name is Dane. I'm a writer at Android Authority as well as a tech journalist in general. As well, I'm a marketing guru, designer, and a budding web developer. My passions include portmanteaus, artisanal coffees, jackets, and the smell of fresh technology in the morning.