Brian X. Chen
To understand how Allo works, it’s easiest to think of the app’s A.I. assistant as an office intern who is lurking in the background, eager to chime in. The assistant analyzes messages you have typed or dictated and, when appropriate, springs into action with automatically generated phrases you can choose to reply with or suggestions for Google searches that may help accomplish tasks.
When you’re having a conversation with another person, for example, the assistant suggests ways it can help. Saying “Want to see a movie tonight?” prompts the assistant to offer a Google search for movie showtimes or to reply with suggestions like “Sure, what time?” or “Not really.”
Here is where Allo became frustrating for me. Asking an assistant to search “movie showtimes tonight” should load a list of movies and corresponding showtimes. Instead, Google’s assistant shows a list of movies without showtimes; only after tapping on a film can you ask for times.
Sometimes that doesn’t even work. Asking for showtimes for the movie “Snowden” loaded movies playing at a movie theater called UA Snowden Square Stadium 14. Not helpful — unless, of course, you live in Columbia, Md.
Allo also tries to guess what your written response might be to certain types of phrases, questions or photos. With photos, the app occasionally identifies what’s inside the photo to generate a suggested reaction. So when you receive a photo of a dog, Allo loads responses like “adorable.”
This feature ran into several problems. When I sent a picture to a friend of my cat sitting inside my car, Allo suggested this response to the friend: “What a cute car!” (Sorry, Allo, but my Prius is the opposite of cute.)
When I sent photos of my dog to the same friend, Allo’s assistant correctly identified the breed, a Pembroke Welsh corgi. It suggested the reaction “Nice pembroke welsh corgi.” Impressive, but if someone said that to me in real life, I would add that person to my list of suspected Cylons.
For now, Allo’s artificial assistance feels limited. So if I were a manager seeking an assistant, I probably wouldn’t hire Allo. But I would politely tell the candidate to reapply after getting more experience.
Shortcomings in Chat
Each messaging app has its own purpose, but Allo has the most in common with Facebook Messenger, iMessage and Google Hangouts. That’s because all four are capable of adding some personality with stickers and emojis.
So I tested Messenger, iMessage and Hangouts against Allo to determine their pros and cons. The highlights:
■ iMessage, Hangouts and Messenger work on mobile devices and computers. Allo works only on Android and iOS mobile devices, though Google plans to expand Allo to computers later.
■ iMessage and Messenger support third-party apps, adding features like sending money to friends within messages. Google has no plans to support outside apps in Allo.
■ Messenger has more sticker packs than Allo, which has only about 25.
■ Facebook is experimenting with chat bots that you can talk to for shopping or summoning an Uber car. Allo’s assistant was quicker to respond and more natural to communicate with than Facebook’s chat bots.
■ IMessage stickers are more fun to use. In iMessage, stickers can be placed on top of messages and photos — add a cartoon mustache to your selfie, for example. On Allo, stickers can be sent only as stand-alone messages.
■ The Hangouts app is very much like Allo, without the half-baked assistant. Allo has more entertaining stickers, including a muscular yellow bull that appears to be twerking. The big difference between the two is that the Hangouts app relies primarily on your contacts list linked to a Google Mail account, whereas Allo pulls contacts from your device’s phone book.
The upshot: iMessage and Messenger have more features than Allo. There are two major features missing from Allo: the ability to chat using a computer and using third-party apps and games to do more within messages.
With Allo, Google has the opportunity to stand out by offering superior artificial intelligence. Neither Messenger nor Allo has great A.I. yet, but Google’s assistant has a better start.
Private, but Not Airtight
Finally, there is privacy to consider. It’s tough to say how Allo will fare in terms of security until encryption experts take a close look at the app.
Here’s what we know so far: By default, Apple’s iMessage service is end-to-end encrypted, which means a message is encrypted when it is sent from your device and remains encrypted when it passes through Apple’s server and reaches the recipient. Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger both lack end-to-end encryption, so at some point when messages pass through their servers, they can see your messages.
Allo has end-to-end encryption turned off by default because its server needs to see the messages to work its A.I. magic. However, Allo includes a mode called Incognito with full encryption enabled, which people can use for private conversations, similar to a private mode on a web browser. But, of course, the A.I. features do not work in Incognito.
So Allo is a step ahead of Hangouts and Messenger for privacy. But by default (and by design), it is not as secure as iMessage.
I recommend waiting for Allo to become available on computers and for its A.I. to become smarter. At the moment, Allo’s assistant will waste more time than it saves when it comes to helping you make plans, and it will probably make conversations more awkward.
Google said it was still improving and refining its algorithms, and Allo’s assistant will get better over time.
Once Allo’s assistant matures, the Hangouts app will become redundant and you’ll be able to delete it from your device. The catch, of course, is that Allo’s A.I. won’t become sophisticated until more people use it and share feedback.
For now, if I really need help, I’m going to request a competent intern.