Thanks to the excitement I had after having a great experience with Duo, Google’s video chat app that debuted not long ago, I was looking forward to having a replica of the same on the company’s other chat app (for text), Allo.
Allo does not even take a moment to shy away from the disappointments that await if you know what you want in a messaging app or had been expecting something that was miles better after hearing Google executives hype the app on stage at I/O. You know, there’s that level of expectation that we all have when an app is coming to essentially try and lure us away from Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger apps and for others, even Google’s own Hangouts.
When signing up to Allo for the first time ever, one thing strikes you. The app, despite being tied to your Google account, does not sync any account info and as such you’ll have to provide it with the obvious, like a profile photo/avatar. Wouldn’t it have been nice if it just picked the one photo I took 5 years ago that has adorned my Google profile since then?
Allo is just another glorified messaging app that you can afford to ignore, for now
Like Duo, Allo is tied to just one mobile phone number. One. The Google account is just a bonus that comes in handy when you happen to switch devices. I happen to review the very many devices that show up at Techweez for such purposes. As such, my primary device is never a constant. I switch devices depending on what I’m working on at any given time. When Allo dropped by, that was the Fero Royale X1. Now, it’s the Tecno Phantom 6 Plus. In a few days time, it will be the Huawei P9 Lite and so on and so on. With such a life, my apps and their accompanying data move with me. I use Helium to move with all my text messages. WhatsApp keeps my data in my Google Drive so I’m always back up in a matter of minutes and Telegram, is, well, Telegram. Great as ever. Shock on me when I realized, after switching devices and activating Allo on the other device, that it didn’t sync any of my messages. For real!
Normally, as I understood about WhatsApp for so long (and found myself a workaround that involved me splashing a couple of $$ on an app) before the Google Drive backup option became available, I can excuse such if it is about my security and privacy. But Allo, is the last of any apps to be chest-thumping about security and privacy at the moment (more on that in a moment) so what gives?
For introverts, Google Assistant is the best companion ever
Allo still remembered my Google Assistant preferences and so I was still able to get my daily news and weather alerts at the scheduled intervals.
Talking about Google Assistant…
Google Assistant has evolved to become a key feature of Google’s mobile future. It is the one feature I desire on Google’s new phones. Since Google is yet to say when we’ll see Assistant front and centre of a device that is not the Pixel or Pixel XL, there’s only one place where you can find it right now: on Allo. And boy, does it blow you away!
For introverts, Google Assistant is the best companion ever. For the rest of us, though, it is a chatty bot that with time we’ll forget how we used to live without it. It’s witty, accurate and informative. In simple terms, it shouldn’t be sitting in the dark corner of a chat app you may find less use for but since it does, it is the only reason you should be using Google Allo on your phone right now.
Google Assistant sends me the top 3 news items each morning, a weather forecast for Nairobi the following day every 7PM and a summary of the headlines Manchester United has hit at 4PM daily. Without fail. Instead of firing up QuizUp for some trivia action, I just head over to Allo and voila! I can ask Assistant to play Ride by Twenty One Pilots and it will ask me to choose which app to use between Google Play Music, YouTube, Spotify and any other installed music app then go ahead and do it. Actually, I have been using this as a shortcut to play any song I want on Spotify since I am not a premium subscriber and as such I am usually limited to what I can play. As of now, there’s just no limit to what Allo can do since it is continually learning from us.
However, that learning is where most are finding bones to pick with Google and which is why I just don’t understand why, then, Allo can’t sync messages when set up on a new device. If you have somehow managed to get a bunch of friends to try out Allo then know this: all those messages you are sharing end up on a Google server somewhere and are stored for good. That is not the worst bit. The worst bit is that these messages can be turned over to law enforcement agencies with the necessary approvals. Remember that incident whereby Apple’s Siri revealed that someone had asked it where to store a dead body and in turn the authorities caught up with him? Yeah, something similar can happen. Not that I plan to use or have been using my mobile device for criminal activity but that, alone, is very scary.
The whole allure of Allo is the AI smarts and this purpose is defeated when users have to choose between being comfortable with what they share and getting superior functionality
Why is Google storing our messages? Because Assistant has to learn. There’s only one way for that learning to happen: constantly going through our conversations to understand us and our chat partners. This is why another feature of Allo, smart replies, is so on point. In most instances, friends I conversed with on Allo received one, two or three-word replies from me that were not really written by me but by Allo. When you get a message, Allo presents at least one or two possible automatic replies. Unless you’re chatting in your mother tongue or some language that is not supported, Allo will highly likely be spot on with the replies it puts forward. Only in some few instances did it fail to match my expectations in this regard.
Since that comes with a privacy trade off, what do you do? Use Allo’s private chat feature: incognito chat. However, there’s always a trade-off to having security features as opt-in instead of enabled-by-default. Most users may never know they are there or take the extra step necessary to activate them. In this, Google fails while improving the amount of data its Artificial Intelligence-powered bot can gather about us (not that Google doesn’t already have a treasure trove of data about us thanks to our continued use of their free services anyway) that it can use not just to provide more relevant information and context to us but also for commercial purporses (targeted ads). Now, this would, on any other day not be as big a deal as I make it sound but we’re living in a post-Edward Snowden revelations world and Google had been on the record praising Allo’s privacy features before it rolled out.
Having to choose between privacy and function (Google Assistant) is already a tough one and for those who opt to use the incognito chat feature then the whole point of using Google Allo is defeated since the private chats are basically the same conversations you can have with anyone over any other secure messaging app. The whole allure of Allo is the AI smarts and this purpose is defeated when users have to choose between being comfortable with what they share and getting superior functionality. The world we live in!
Controversial as it may be, Assistant and smart replies are the only things that Allo has going for it. Like its video chat sibling Duo, Allo lacks a desktop client, is not accessible via the web and is not cross-platform. As already noted, it is tied to one device at any given time and save for iPads with cellular network connectivity, is inaccessible on any other tablets. That Google won’t let me back up and restore my chats since it doesn’t sync them anyway, adds salt to injury. Don’t get me started on SMS integration.
Over the 3 weeks that Allo has been installed on my phones, save for the first week when there was a lot of hype about it and what not, I’ve not bothered much with it. I only check it a few times in a day when Assistant delivers my subscribed alerts. So, I actually open an app that is meant for me to converse with friends, family and colleagues to check automatic updates from a bot? That’s pretty much everything you need to know about Allo from one person’s experience.
There are other things like the big stickers but honestly, if the main draw to what is supposedly a futuristic messenger app are big stickers then something is wrong.
Allo is currently in its early days and some, if not most, of my concerns are likely to be addressed going forward but for now, it is just another glorified messaging app that you can afford to ignore. Google simplified the video calling process with Duo but complicated matters with Allo. That, right there, is Allo’s biggest impediment besides the privacy storm it started.