Google's smart messaging app Allo is now available. The service competes with WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, both of which boast a userbase of over a billion users. Google is looking to differentiate Allo with Google Assistant, a chatbot that provides answers to your queries by drawing on the search giant's machine learning smarts. AI is at the core of Google's strategy, and we'll see the assistant make its way into the Google Home and future products. And it's all kicking off with Allo.
These are the top Allo features you need to know. If you're just installing the app, be sure to check out our setup guide.
Your replies are now smarter
When you're chatting with your friends and family, Google Assistant offers a series of responses based on the context of the conversation. If you're sharing a picture of your cat, for instance, your friends will see options to reply with "Cute!", "Adorable!", "How fun!", and so on. For images that contain food, you'll see suggestions for nearby restaurants.
That's the good part. The not-so-great bit is where most canned responses are generic right now. I had an entire conversation with my colleague Russell Holly without typing a single word. That said, most of it went down like this (exclamation points courtesy of Google):
Google Assistant learns your messaging patterns over time, and it should hopefully offer more personalized suggestions.
When in doubt, emoji
When you don't want to type, you can use Allo's diverse set of emojis to get your message across. There's an emoji for most emotions (which should say a lot, really), occasions, pets, and social activities, so you're very well catered to in this regard.
You can jazz up images you're sharing with friends by doodling on them, or adding text.
Emphasize your point with text
Allo has a nifty trick that lets you make your text larger or smaller. To achieve this effect, you have to press and hold the send button, and slide it up to enlarge text, and slide down to shrink it.
Use stickers for everything else
Google has worked with "independent artists and studios around the world" to launch 25 sticker packs for Allo. Messaging app Line pioneered the use of stickers in chats, and ever since most messaging platforms have gotten into the act.
Also, for some reason that I can't really fathom, a lot of the sticker packs are aimed at an Indian audience. There's even one about a "little Indian girl who loves her country and relishes any occasion to be patriotic." No clue what's going on there, but for the most part, stickers on Allo are just like on any other platform. Some will use it, but most users won't care.
Allo offers an Incognito Mode that doesn't store a record of your conversation. You can set a timer specifying the duration of the chat, following which it will be automatically deleted. All ephemeral chats are overlaid with a grey incognito icon.
Ask Google Assistant anything
If you're feeling bored, Google Assistant offers a variety of ways to pass the time. You can have a conversation with the chatbot wherein you can ask it to tell jokes, recite poems, play games, serve up news headlines, sports scores, and much more. You can invoke the assistant directly from within a chat window by typing @google.
And yes, you can have an emoji party with the chatbot.
Room to grow
For all of its features, Allo can't be used as the default SMS client on your phone. It uses an SMS relay to communicate with contacts that don't have the service installed, but it won't be taking over Hangouts. Then there's the fact that chat history is non-transferable (at least for now) across devices. When you switch handsets, you're starting from scratch in Allo.
What do you guys think of Allo? Let us know in the comments.