Allo — the messenger client Google announced at Google I/O 2016 that leverages Google Assistant — has a lot of people scratching their heads while thinking that the last thing we need is yet another messenger client. Our own Dan Bader does a great job breaking down why Google "needs" Allo to showcase new technology in a mobile-first way, but for the users — you and me and your Grandma — there are already pages full of messengers that work in Google Play. It feels like Allo will be just another app you can use to chat with friends that has a cool feature or two — just like the handful of other apps you use to chat with your friends that has a cool feature or two; one that some folks will try for a while, then move on.
That could very well be the case, and Allo just won't catch on. But there is an alternative way to think. What if there was an app that had the simple appeal of Apple's iMessage, but was available for every person using an iPhone or an Android?
Apple has good reason to keep iMessage to themselves, so we're still looking for the right app to fill the void on 80% of the phones out there.
If you've used iMessage, you probably know what I mean here. If you haven't, think of Hangouts or WhatsApp without a million settings or options, and instead just lets you chat with anyone who also uses it, or send and receive SMS messages from anyone with a phone. Right out of the box, as long as you're signed-in, iMessage just does what it does. No fiddling with multiple accounts and multiple settings pages, no support issues when switching from one phone to the next (as long as both phones support it), and no digging through options to sort out merging SMS messages with "regular" messages or any sort of setup. Pick up your phone, tap the icon and just chat with anyone. That's something a lot of people want, but less than 20% can do because iMessage is tied to one platform.
The obvious solution is for Apple to open up iMessage to everyone. That's not going to happen any time soon. We tend to forget that Apple isn't in the business of selling software, even though some of their software is done very nicely. Apple wants to sell you iPhones and iPads and Macs. Part of the way they can do that is by having software that people want to use locked in to their products, and not sitting in every app store. As long as they continue to make giant stacks of money every quarter, they have no incentive to branch out and become a services company, and we end up trying to find other apps that will work for us.
Allo could be that app, and unified messaging doesn't have to be a joke.
Hangouts could have been that app, or WhatsApp or BBM or any number of messengers that work fairly well and are cross-platform, but for some reason people still want iMessage on Android. I think it's that simplicity factor mentioned above. Many of us do use Hangouts or WhatsApp and have no issues, but even we can't deny that the apps are clunky and can be confusing. Hangouts in particular is just "so Google." You can do so much more with Hangouts — use it for messages to and from a virtual Google Voice number on an unlimited number of computers or phones, for example — but I think most people just want something simple. Allo might be that simple iMessage replacement people are looking for.
There are some valid criticisms if we think of Allo this way. The addition of a smart "bot" that needs to analyze your conversation means that not all messages are encrypted unless you go "incognito." And having some smart bank of computer servers reading your messages is going to bother a lot of people in the first place. That could be enough to keep people using WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. And some folks will hate it simply because it comes from Google and not their own favorite tech company — it's cool to hate Google now that they dominate mobile.
All I know is that Allo might be what we're looking for, or it might not. We'll know later in 2016 when we all can use it.