Google Allo: Australian Hands On

A chat app with a built-in personal assistant, Google's Allo aims to be your virtual best friend. Back at the Google I/O developer conference in May, the search giant unveiled plans for two new communications apps in Duo and Allo. Duo is a simplistic video chat app, which was launched in August, while today Google takes the wraps off the far more ambitious Allo.

Google's new Allo smart chat app puts the virtual Google Assistant at your beck and call. Photo: Adam Turner

Just like Duo, you don't need a Gmail account to use Allo. You simply download the Allo app, tell it your mobile phone number and enter the confirmation code it sends you via SMS. The app is only available for Android and iOS smartphones and, just like Duo, Google doesn't offer a desktop client.

Allo is a standalone app, it doesn't integrate with your phone's SMS app. Notifications appear on your lock screen, like other communications apps, plus your phone chirps up with a spoken "Allo" which some people will find very annoying – hopefully Google will add the option to change it to a simple beep or ping for people who don't want their pocket to strike up a conversation when they're out in public.

Google Assistant gets to know you over time so it can help you out during the day, Photo: Adam Turner

Loyal Google users can be forgiven if they're suffering from message app fatigue, considering we've got GChat, Hangouts and Google Messenger. At first glance Allo seems like just another attempt from Google to tackle the crowded messaging space and jump on the emoji/stickers bandwagon, but it pays to dig a little deeper.

Emoji, stickers and other fluff

To be honest I couldn't care less about emoji, stickers and all the other cutesy crap you can slip into chat conversations, but I appreciate that it's popular in certain demographics (insert "Old man shouts at cloud" reference here).

Google Allo's cute chat options are quite tame in comparison to Apple's iMessage overhaul with iOS 10. Google puts emojis and downloadable sticker packs at your disposal, plus you can also send your own photos and videos – with the ability to draw on your images.

Allo supports emojis and sticker packs but doesn't go as overboard as Apple's iMessage in iOS 10. Photo: Adam Turner

You can also change the size of the text in your message, from a whisper to a shout, by dragging the send button up and down. A loud shout also triggers that chirpy "Allo" notification, even if you have the app open.

Smart Reply

Google Assistant appears on your contact list – you can ask it just about anything but it can be fussy when it comes to syntax. You can also see its suggestions for follow up search queries. Photo: Adam Turner

Allo also borrows the Smart Reply feature from Google's Inbox app, which acts like auto-correct to offer you a short list of appropriate canned replies. It can even analyse images to make suggestions, recognising objects and landmarks. It gets to know the way you talk so it sounds more like you over time.

The chat window displays one tick next to a message to show it's been delivered, then adds a second tick to confirm it's been read. Smart Replies are certainly useful when you're in a rush, but the fact that the person on the other end can't distinguish between Smart Replies and real replies leaves it open to abuse.

On the left you can see Smart Reply in the action, in the middle Google Assistant recommends restaurants, on the right you can see shouting and whispering in conversations. Photo: Adam Turner

For example, if someone types "Love you" then you can simply tap on "Love you too" without giving it too much thought – which perhaps doesn't bode well for the relationship. You can have short conversations which are nothing but Smart Reply ping pong, but Allo catches on after a while and stops coming up with suggestions so you're forced to actually write something.

Keep it secret

Allo also features "incognito chat" for those times when you want to have more secure conversations. It utilises end-to-end encryption, with nondescript lock screen notifications which simply say "You have a new message" without including details of the sender or message. You can also set messages to automatically delete after any time between five seconds and seven days.

Lots of messaging apps have enabled end-to-end encryption in the last few years to allay privacy concerns, but if you're really that paranoid about security then you're probably not going to use Google services for secret messages – regardless of its security promises.

To be honest the most likely use for incognito chat is sexting, and perhaps not with your own partner, but I'm not sure how much I'd trust it with your private pics.

I'm not completely sure how these things are supposed to work, but the deletion timer only starts after you open the message – there's no extra passcode on the message which means if someone else picks up your phone they can see the last message you received if you haven't read it yet.

Even if you have read all the messages, the fact you were exchanging incognito messages with that person remains in your recent list unless you manually delete the conversation thread. An empty incognito chat thread still looks pretty incriminating.

Can I be of assistance?

Allo becomes more interesting when you discover "Google Assistant" in your contact list. You can strike up a conversation with the assistant and converse with it the same way you'd interact with Google Now. Microsoft has done something similar, incorporating a Cortana bot into Skype. For iGadget lovers, it's basically the equivalent of building Siri into iMessage.

At this point Google Assistant in Allo is a "preview edition", it will eventually be the foundation of the Google Home voice-controlled benchtop speaker which seemingly will arrive in October (as least in the US). For now Google Assistant supports many of the novelty easter eggs built into Siri which keep children entertained for a while, such as "tell me a joke", but thankfully it can also be quite useful.

One of Google's strengths is that it understands the context of follow on questions, for example you can ask "Who is the president of the United State of America?" and follow up with "How tall is he?" to learn that "He is 1.85 metres tall". Siri would be totally lost on that second question, because she wouldn't know who "he" is.

One strange quirk in both Android and iOS is that you can't tap the Google mic button so the app will start listening to your spoken OK Google-style commands. Instead pressing that button records what you're saying so you can send an audio file. If you want to dictate commands to the app you need to use the Android/iOS keyboard mic button and then press Enter.

It's the same on iOS when you're talking directly to Google Assistant while, on Android, Google Assistant starts listening for commands when you tap the Google mic button.

Ask me anything

You can also use the assistant to interact with Google services, such as calling up your Google Calendar schedule or setting alarms and reminders (some features are still in the pipeworks). You can even ask it to remember things, such as "my parking space number is A45".

Google Assistant improves over time as it gets to know you. It can call up a wide range of information from the web but, for all of Google artificial intelligence and machine learning, it's more of a stickler than Siri when it comes to syntax.

Case in point, the following six queries all make sense to Siri and she'll call up a list of movies screening nearby; Show me movie times, What's on at the cinema, What should I see at the movies, What's on at the movies, What's playing at the movies, What's screening at the movies.

Only the first three queries produce a list of movies using Allo, while the rest fall back on Google searches which point to Village cinemas or Wikipedia.

Google joins the conversation

What makes Google Assistant particularly interesting is that you can bring it into group conversations with your friends by starting a message with @google.

One advantage of this is that you can execute Google searches within the conversation for everyone to see, such as "What's the weather in Melbourne on the weekend" when planning a group outing or "QF74 status" to see whether tomorrow's San Francisco to Sydney to flight is expected to arrive on time.

Asking "Restaurants nearby" will find you nearby places to eat, while Allo will eventually integrate with OpenTable so you'll be able to make a reservation without leaving the conversation. It can even be proactive – if you ask the group "feel like Italian food?", Google Assistant will butt in with an offer to find dining recommendations.

It's this ability to show initiative that could see Google Assistant evolve into something really amazing. These features and Smart Replies are a bit temperamental on iOS, but that might just be teething issues. It also depends whether third-party integration remains US-centric.

So what's the verdict?

As a chat app Google Allo will struggle to stand out from the crowd, but Google Assistant certainly has the potential to win people over. As its natural language recognition improves, along with integration with third-party services, it will draw closer to the Jarvis-style proactive personal assistant that some people are hoping for.

It will be interesting to see how Google Assistant fits into the big picture once Google Home is unveiled, but for now Google Allo offers a tantalising glimpse of what's to come.

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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