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Google Allo review: This is fine

Say hello to the new Google Assistant in this new chat app

Google's Allo is here. And it is an app that the company has launched to atone for the sins of past, sins that not only brought it wrath of users but also probably robbed it of the dominant position in the lucrative instant messaging market. A few years ago, Google thoroughly dominated messaging market. When people left IMs they did that on Google Talk. But even as the company started to feel the challenge from WhatsApp -- and this is 2012 we are talking about -- instead of improving Google Talk, the company suddenly killed it and replaced it with Hangouts. The new Hangouts app was an unmitigated disaster. It had a terrible user interface and although it improved in the months and years that followed, it never recovered. WhatsApp became, and continues to be, the top messaging app.

Allo is Google's attempt to get back into the game and it is doing that by thoroughly copying all the great ideas that made WhatsApp a hit. It works. The Allo, as I have found from the time I have spent with it so far, is fantastic. But then so closely it follows the pattern set by WhatsApp that it also suffers from the issues similar to what WhatsApp has. And that is a pity because this makes Allo a missed opportunity for Google, at least for now.

Allo is smartest of all

First things first: Allo has a clean design, easy-to-use interface and a setup process that must be familiar to everyone who has installed WhatsApp. You download the app from the Play store, install it, hit open and you are greeted by a few colourful cards where you tap on next and next until you see the option where Google asks for your phone number to verify it. Allo doesn't require a Google account. Although if your phone already has it, it automatically adds that. But to work it needs your phone number, similar to how WhatsApp requires it.
 Google's incredible AI powers Allo. For better or worse, the smart assistant is always there when you are talking to people, telling you what to say 
Once you have provided the number and installed the app, it scans the phone's address book and automatically identifies your contacts that have installed Allo. You can start chatting with these contacts right away. This is standard operating procedure for almost all messaging apps. It's simple and fuss-free. In case, a contact doesn't have Allo installed you can still send him or her the message but it will be delivered to that user as an SMS. It will have message as well as a prompt telling that the user to install Allo.
All of this is standard messaging and is part of almost all apps. But as you dig in deeper, you start to find that in terms of its feature set, Allo is very much like WhatsApp. It too uses double tick method to tell users that their messages have been read. It too allows users to create group chat rooms. It too allows them to share images and videos. But it does all of it while looking better than WhatsApp. The design is flatter and slicker than the design of WhatsApp, which looks dated. At the same time, Allo has support for rich stickers, have options like changing the size of text on the fly and arguably has a more cooler set of emojis.
Not all of this matters much but all the small things do add up to make the users experience richer, and more fun.
But the greatest trick that Allo has up its sleeve is not the stickers or the simplicity. It is the smart AI inside it. Google's upcoming Assistant, which is similar to Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana, is deeply integrated into Allo. In fact, it is like your all-knowing friend and a confidante. You can chat with it about the mundane evening, about why the weather is so gloomy this Saturday or ask it to tell you jokes. Powered by all the data Google has inside its servers, the Assistant can tell you the best restaurants near you or set an alarm for you. This is a trick that WhatsApp lacks. Although not everyone may find it useful but in a way, compared to say Google Now -- which is getting the axe -- the smart Assistant that replies to your messages in conversational format is a more natural way to do the smart virtual assistants.
At the same time, Google's incredible AI also powers the conversations in Allo. For better or worse, the smart assistant is always there when you are talking to people, telling you what to say. Again, depending on what you are saying and how you are saying this could be something great or possibly an annoyance. But the way it works, I have a feeling, that is going to be useful to people. If someone says "we had a great day of sales today", the AI Assistant immediately offers some suggestions like "fantastic" "awesome" that you can just tap and be done with it. In nutshell, Allo is great when you want to talk at length. And it is particularly impressive when you hate long conversations.
Also, I can't help but feel that this is just the beginning. This is an app that is going to get smarter and smarter as more people use it and as Google crunches the data. Yes, behind it all there lurks the privacy issue but let's put that aside for now. When it comes to connecting dots and finding pattern in data, Google is at the forefront. Patterns power every Google service and the way Google is using it in Allo is already impressive, even at this early stage.

But not all is well

If WhatsApp is Allo's inspiration, it may also turn out to be its doom. WhatsApp is great at several things, with ability to offer consumers fuss-free text messaging experience being the core strength for the app. The same is true for Allo. So why would people use Allo and not WhatsApp? Or rather why should people give up WhatsApp and use Allo? The answer, for now, is that they should not. Although it is nice, Allo may not be enough to turn users away from WhatsApp, particularly at a time when all smartphone users and, literally, their aunts use WhatsApp.
Allo is even missing a few crucial features. Ability to make calls, for example is one. Although the WhatsApp calling feature has not turned out to be as well as what the developers behind it were hoping for, it is a convenience. It is there. You can just tap the phone sign and make a call to a WhatsApp user. On Allo you can't, which is rather surprising given the fact that on Hangouts, another Google messaging app, you can.
Allo, apart from borrowing everything that is great about WhatsApp, also borrows everything that is missing. Two complaints that WhatsApp users make are web support for chats and multi-device support. WhatsApp has a web chat client but it is just a shell. Now, in defence of WhatsApp, it is because this is an app totally reliant on a phone number. But Google, in Allo, not only uses the phone number of the user but also the Google account (although it's optional). Google is arguably world's top web firm and yet it is missing a feature in Allo that would have allowed seamless sync between devices. In fact, this is a feature that is out there in Google Hangouts as well as was part of Google Talk. And users loved it. The seamless sync between chats from PC to the mobile was one of the great features of Google Talk. Allo lacks it, something that I feel is a great miss on the part of Google.
Allo also doesn't support multiple-devices. This too is a lost opportunity, considering the fact that WhatsApp users absolutely hate the fact that they can't use the service on two devices. Allo could have been different from WhatsApp here, in a better way, but it is not.
 Although it is nice, Allo may not be enough to turn users away from WhatsApp, particularly at a time when all smartphone users and, literally, their aunts use WhatsApp 

Finally, there is the matter of the messaging chaos on the Android phones. The messages are just scattered across the device. On an iPhone, the iMessage seamlessly combines SMS and instant messaging. With Hangouts, Google tried to do the same but in such clumsy way that everyone hated it. With Allo it had an opportunity to set it right. But that is not happening. In fact, with Allo Google had a chance to create a messaging app similar to the iMessage but for all platforms and not just iPhone. But again, a missed opportunity.

Sum of it all

Although it is missing features, it is easy to see that Allo is fun to use and is smart, arguably the smartest messaging app. It will definitely find its fans and it is a much better messaging app than Hangouts will ever be. But it is not a slam dunk.
WhatsApp will feel challenged by Allo. But WhatsApp has the momentum and mass of over a billion users so it will not be an easy going for Google Allo. The fact that Google misses out on couple of features, where it could have truly beaten WhatsApp, also doesn't help its case.

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