Google’s Allo mobile chat app is not as smart – yet – as it’s made out to be

Web giant’s virtual assistant will butt in on your conversations with its suggestions, offer responses to photos, and more, but there’s a lot it can’t do and it’s entering a crowded field

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 1:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 September, 2016, 5:48pm

Google wants to add a middleman to your mobile chats – a personal virtual assistant who’s not shy about interjecting itself into the conversation.

The new Allo app promises to be “smart”, sort of. Its Google Assistant will butt in with restaurant recommendations when someone types, “Want to get sushi?” It can also send daily updates on weather and sports and will also suggest replies to your friends’ messages.

The idea is to keep the conversation flowing, so you don’t have to constantly leave Allo to look up something else.

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Google has just released the free chat app, a week after Apple updated its own Messages app with the iOS 10 software update. Messages works on iPhones and iPads, while Allo will work for iPhones and Android phones, but not tablets.

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Smart replies

Allo can help cut down on typing on small screens by suggesting replies based on context. If a friend asks how you’re doing, you can tap “Good tnx”. Allo preserves chatting short cuts such as “u’’ for “you”. Apple offers something similar on its smartwatch, but not phones or tablets.

Allo will also analyse photos to suggest replies such as “beautiful smile” or “the skyline looks great!” – at least for photos with smiles or skylines. Remember that this is software, so its suggestions won’t always make sense.

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Of course, you’re free to type your own response. Sending a computer-generated reply to a friend can feel, well, deceptive. Worse, it might make your friend wonder if your response is genuine. And having the suggestions appear in oval bubbles in the chat can make it seem as though a stranger has joined the chat (though you can shut out Google by enabling incognito mode).

Personal assistant

When you’re chatting with someone, you’re often making plans. Google Assistant can retrieve information on nearby restaurants, movie times and even the weather. Everyone in the chat will see the Assistant’s replies and can weigh in on the choices.

In some cases, Google Assistant will even anticipate your needs, such as when someone’s asking about getting sushi. An oval bubble appears with an offer to retrieve nearby sushi restaurants. After choosing one, you can tap for opening hours, directions or the menu.

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Reservations aren’t available yet, though Google is considering third-party integrations such as OpenTable for dinner and Airbnb for accommodations. Apple’s Messages doesn’t invoke the Siri virtual assistant the same way, but it already offers integration with third-party apps so that you can make plans (and reservations) while chatting.

Beyond planning, Google Assistant can give you the latest news and sports scores, translate phrases or do maths calculations. Asking for directions will bring up Google Maps.

Limited smarts

The app’s intelligence still feels, well, limited. Though Google Assistant is an evolution of the Google Now feature that has long been on phones, it doesn’t do as much as Google Now in terms of identifying patterns or checking other Google services.

For instance, if a friend asks you when your flight leaves, Allo won’t try to suggest a reply, even though Google has your calendar. Likewise, Google Assistant won’t automatically offer traffic conditions or public transport schedules for your regular commute the way Google Now does.

You can request daily updates on the weather, news and sports. But you can’t get automatic updates whenever the score changes or a game ends.

Google calls its Assistant a preview. Following its debut on Allo, it will arrive on a smart speaker called Google Home this autumn.

Too many apps?

Beyond making its Assistant smarter, Google will need to persuade people they need yet another chat app, something that could be tough given that Google already offers four of them.

Google’s Hangouts text and video calling service will be targeted at business users. Allo is the consumer offering, but won’t offer video calling. That’s where the Duo app comes in. And while Allo accounts are based on your phone number, not your Google ID, you can’t use Allo to receive regular texts. On Android, Google has Messenger for that.