People use their phones for messaging more than almost anything else. That's why companies like Apple, Facebook and Snapchat are dumping truckloads into making it easier and more fun to send messages. In May at I/O, Google announced Allo, its latest foray into the brave new world of messaging. Now, the app is finally available on Android and iOS.
Image: Gizmodo / Google
Allo looks like most of the messaging apps you've probably already used before. Like Facebook Messenger and iMessage, it lets you send stickers, draw on photos and send media from your phone. In many ways, it's almost exactly the same as Google's Messenger and Hangouts apps. What makes Allo different than everything that's come before, though, is its deep integration with Google's artificial intelligence. As with most other messaging platforms, the app's usefulness is contingent on your friends joining. But assuming you can get everyone you know on board, there's a lot of potential here.
The first thing you'll notice in Allo is the suggested replies that pop up when anyone sends you a message. The most common phrases you'll see are ones like "OK" or "Got it." Phrases can be sent by tapping just once. The suggested phrases can be sent from the notifications screen or within the app.
For now, Google's suggestions are relatively simple. The app is currently pulling from a default list for all users. Once more people begin to use the app, however, Google's AI will get smarter and begin to suggest personalised phrases based on people's speech. The difference could be as simple as suggesting "LOL" rather than "haha."
It's a little creepy to willingly let Google's AI read your conversations, especially if you're concerned about your privacy, but I say it's completely worth it for the level of convenience that it adds. If you're having conversations about classified or sensitive information, there are probably better apps out there for you to use.
Suggested replies are a nice little addition that makes it easier (and more polite) to dismiss text messages when you're busy or can't get back by actually responding. The amount of time it takes to send a coherent response is so short that there's almost no excuse for not replying.
The AI goes deeper though. Allo also includes a chat helper called "Google Assistant" that can answer questions about basically anything you can search on Google. The assistant works a lot like Siri or Cortana or Alexa, except you write to it rather than talk.
Google Assistant can be called upon in any text message, and its answers to questions are shared to everyone in the chat. The assistant can answer questions about the weather, nearby restaurants or directions to places. It's basically Google Now built right into the messages that you're already sending.
For now, the best searches are generic and nearly identical to the ones answered by Google Now or Google Voice Search. It uses a similar AI to process the requests. Queries like "Show me nearby restaurants" or "What's the Bulldogs score?" will make a familiar-looking Google search result card appear. You can also ask follow-up questions like "What's the weather?" and then "What about this weekend?" Its ability to use Google Search puts it years ahead of any other digital assistants including Siri and Alexa.
Beyond today's capabilities, the the potential is huge. In a briefing, Google suggested that the assistant — in other words the artificial intelligence — will become smarter over time, and could begin to answer more complex questions or even predict questions. It's easy to imagine how someday Google Assistant might help you find a good time on the calendar to meet with someone, find hotels or check-in to flights.
In the long run, in order to be really useful, the assistant will need to use data Google has already collected from all of its other services. Google Search, Maps, Drive and Calendar might one day share information to the Google Assistant. And as with the the suggested responses, things start to enter the land of the creepy here. From a privacy standpoint, it feels a little freaky and invasive. But from a convenience standpoint, I welcome this super powerful AI to rummage through my data in order to help me get things done faster. It's easy to imagine how Google Assistant might one day help you and a friend make lunch plans by finding a time that works for everyone, a central location and meets all the dietary restrictions that everyone has. The point of the assistant is to make planning easier, and with all the information I'm already feeding Google, I have high hopes about how it might be able to help.
The last important feature is Incognito Mode, which is entirely focused on security. Incognito Mode enables end-to-end encryption and increases the level of security between two users at various levels. The most important thing to note is Incognito Mode is it's an opt-in feature, and privacy advocates have been fighting for encryption by default in all major messaging apps.
Incognito Mode uses the Signal Protocol for its encryption, so it meets the same standards as other messaging services like Signal and WhatsApp. As we previously reported, the Signal Protocol is currently the best standard in end-to-end encryption. In short, no one but the recipient and sender are able to read the message.
Google Assistant is not available in Incognito Mode because it's basically a man in the middle. Because encrypted messages can only be read by the sender and recipient, the AI assistant is unable to lurk over messages. Aside from not being able to use Google Assistant, you're free to do all of the things you'd normally do in the messaging app. You can send stickers, photos, videos, audio messages and other attachments.
Incognito Mode also lets you set an expiration on any of your messages. When the timer goes off, your message deletes forever. Google doesn't store any of the expired messages on its servers, and even if it did, it would be encrypted with the Signal Protocol, so Google wouldn't be able to read the message anyways. It would be useless.
Allo has only been out for a few hours now, and I've already recommended that all of my closest friends join. The basic editing tools like drawing on photos and changing text size make it easy for everyday use. The real kicker is Incognito Mode, and what it will inspire my friends to do. It's a safe space in a world that is becoming increasingly more hostile online. It's nice to see that Google is making it easier for everyone to encrypt and even delete their sketchy arse messages — and I know there are a lot of you out there sending them.