Allo, the standalone messaging app that Google announced back in May, is now available to the masses — and probably smarter than any messaging app you've ever used.
Allo comes with Google's AI assistant and search functionality baked in, which means it offers a handful of perks that other apps don't have. It will automatically suggest replies for you to send based on your conversation. If you're making dinner plans with a friend, it will surface nearby restaurants. You can ask it for movie times or directions or the score of the game.
"One of the principles we've applied here is not to have lots and lots of clutter," explained Nick Fox, VP of Google's communications products. "We don't want people to be having to dig through the app to find the thing they want. We want to surface the right things at the right time."
All of this "surfacing" happens within an otherwise typical messaging conversation, which is the key here because most people are already having these kinds of conversations inside of other companies' apps. The artificially intelligent assistant is Google's differentiator in its quest to capture some of the consumer messaging market from incumbents like Apple (iMessage) and Facebook (WhatsApp and Messenger), both of which have a massive head start.
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No surprise, but Fox says he isn't stressing about Google's late start.
"While messaging has been around for a while, smart messaging is much newer," said Fox. "I do think this is a new era where we have a lot of advantages building on top of a lot of these investments we've been making around machine intelligence."
That may finally be the case, though Google has never been able to crack messaging or social media in the past. Its Facebook killer, Google+, has fallen off the map. Its native Android messaging app is just texting, and Google now says that it considers Hangouts (formerly Gchat) to be an enterprise messaging client for things like inter-office communication.
Which brings us back to Allo. Coupled with Duo, the company's new video chat app, Allo represents the tech giant's foray back into mobile communication.
We tested the app over the past 24 hours and found it to be relatively useful. For the most part, the assistant felt more helpful than invasive, though that could easily change when the conversation switches from where to meet for lunch to something more serious and private. Google does offer an "incognito" messaging mode for end-to-end encrypted messages. Google's AI assistant won't chime in on those message threads.
One other critique: While we didn't need to go hunting for things inside the app, adding the Google search results to the messaging thread does seem to clutter it up a bit. At times it was tough to tell which messages were sent by a human and which were Google-generated.
Still, Google Allo offers something we haven't seen before in a messaging app. A nice perk is that you should be able to use Allo to message people even if they don't have the app. Messages to those without Allo are simply sent as texts.
Allo is available beginning Wednesday for free on both iOS and Android.