The Allo messaging app by Google seems to be Google's latest attempt at taking on iMessage directly. A few days into using it, I think Google may actually have a solid shot with this one.
Disclosure: as mentioned before in other posts, I'm an Android user, and I always have been. I've never used iMessage, but I have taken some time to learn about the basic ins and outs for the sake of writing this article.
It's certainly not Hangouts
Downloading Google Allo, I didn't know what to expect. As an avid Hangouts user, I assumed the user experience would be fairly similar, given they were both created by the savvy engineers at the G headquarters. Quickly, I discovered that I couldn't have been more wrong, and that's a good thing. Google seems to be serious about differentiating its Allo and Duo apps from the rest of the pack (Duo is Allo's sibling ,video-chat app, aimed at Facetime), and I'm really excited for that. This is because, when it comes to web services, Google has always been king of the modern web, but not so much a sovereignty in regards to more conventional means of conversation, like texting. With Allo out in the market, I'm expecting things to get a bit more interesting. Arriving for free download around the same time the Pixel (Google's iPhone competitor; you may notice a trend here) went on sale, Google is boldly following in Apple's footsteps of controlling their entire user experience from software to hardware (kind of; HTC manufactured the Pixel, but close enough), making the iPhone v. Android competition closer than ever.
As a Project Fi user, one of my favorite features has always been the ability to send SMS over WiFi via the Hangouts app. The catch is that this functionality only works for Project Fi users (okay, you technically can use a Google Voice number, but this isn't true SMS. It's a nifty extension of something called voice-over IP). I previously used Hangouts as my default SMS app, but I could not text over WiFi without using my old G voice number (I eventually had to ditch G voice altogether when activating my Fi account. This was a happy trade I was willing to make). Due to this narrow functionality, this is an edge Apple historically has held over google. With iMessage, any iPhone user can text from any iOS device, regardless of the service provider. To take on this gap, some Android service providers, such as Verizon, have attempted create third-party apps bridging devices together, which have amassed over 10 million downloads on the Play Store.
"This a feature for which we have longed for many days and nights"
Enter Allo. Google decided that Android users, too, regardless of carrier, should be able to send SMS directly over WiFi from ANY device (I am currently not sure if this includes iOS devices as well or just Windows/Android). I think I can confidently speak for my fellow Android community when I say this a feature for which we have longed for many days and nights, so, without further adieu, let's do this! *Plays hype music*
Setup and contacting non-Allo users.
When you first download Google Allo, it will prompt you to enter your mobile number and request a verification code, similar to What's App, Facebook messenger, and many other apps of the sort. Setup is fast and to-the-point, which is always a plus.
Because the app is so new, chances are none of your friends are using it, which makes things a little awkward at first. The first time I messaged someone, the message never went through. Albeit this person was an iPhone user, I had my doubts going forward with the app. Of course, once I contacted a few of my fellow Android users, all hope was restored--kind of. When you text someone who hasn't yet installed Allo, they get an alert letting them know that "Tev" (a.k.a. me) is trying to contact them via the Google Allo messaging service. The recipient then has the option to accept or ignore my message. If they chose to ignore me, I'm not actually sure what happens. I'm assuming that on my end it would say the message delivery has failed, and that would be the end of that. After a coworker showing me what showed up on her phone, it reminded me of accepting a phone call from prison in OITNB on Netflix. Fortunately, the select few folks I reached out to all accepted (thanks guys, u da best! ;p).
Anyway, once you accept, it becomes more than less of a regular notification-based messaging experience, like Hangouts or the classic Handcent messenger. There's still this rather unwieldy notification for each message, but the options go from "Accept" and "Ignore" to "Install" and "Reply." Small disclaimer: please keep in mind that, since I was not the recipient in either case, I'm purely going off of my understanding of my friends' experiences, so, friends and others who've used the service before downloading the app, correct me if I'm wrong about the response options.
Using the app with other Allo users
Except for that one iPhone user, it just so happens that everyone I reached out to for this review eventually ended up installing the app, once I told them more about it and confirmed it wasn't some elaborate spam. Though absolutely nothing changed on my end, it was good to be able to hear feedback and share thoughts with other users as we communicated with one another via this new yet comfortably familiar messenger.
THAT INTERFACE, THO'
Sometimes it takes me a while to get to the point, but, alas, we've arrived. The unanimous first-impression among myself and my friends was Allo's UI. It's beautiful—clean, modern, colorful, and, for those who prefer to see the world in grey, there's a monochrome option in the settings menu just for you (though there is still some slight saturation in hue). The other big difference is the much-anticipated read receipts feature. Yes, gone are the days of your tales of not receiving texts from that person who's pretty cool but no where near as cool as he thinks he is. And there's no way to turn it off. (Thanks?) Furthermore, you may also be surprised to see a lively ellipsis dancing about while people type a response (or begin to, at least, before deeming it best that you should not receive a text-back at all). Of course, this feature is far from novelty, even for non-iPhone owners. If you've ever used What's App, FB Messenger, or even AIM way back in the day, chances are you've experienced this technology. Nevertheless, it's a much-needed, though long overdue, improvement by Google.
Side note: I should point out that some of the aforementioned features, such as read-receipts and live texting updates, are available to the sender regardless of the recipient downloading Allo or not.
Um, another side note: if you're expecting to see the expanded array of assorted emojis, featuring more diverse skin tones, you'll have to actually update to Android 7.0 or higher.
Features yet to test
One of coolest features about Allo is Google Assistant, which has actually been integrated as a core feature into the Nougat 7.1 update, which I've yet to receive, btw. (C'mon, G. What's the hold up?!). Google Assistant builds largely on the functionality of the Google Now launcher first introduced with Android 5.0 (KitKat) on the Nexus 5 by LG. Note: some of my friends were a bit turned off by the thought of an AI bot learning about them and their conversational habits, but I for one am all for it! Yay, machine learning!
The other big feature I haven't gotten around to testing is the incognito chat. I'm not entirely sure what it's for, which is why I need to poke around at its existence. My guess is that it has a functionality similar to that of Snapchat's direct messaging feature, except expanded to multi-user support. Don't quote me on this, though. Once I find out, I'll let you know!
Update: despite making you feel like you're in a military-grade vault with just you and whoever you're talking to, the incognito feature is awesome! You can even set messages to self-destruct after they have been read. V cool.
Recap & Final Thoughts
One week in, here is a breakdown of my thoughts so far:
THE GOOD: FAST, CLEAN & VERY PRETTY!
THE NOT-SO-GROOVY: I'M STILL NOT SURE WHY I HAVEN'T BEEN ABLE TO CONTACT IPHONE USERS.
WORTH CHECKING OUT?: FOR SURE! I'm especially curious to know what the experience is like for iOS users.
If all continues to go well, I can easily see myself making Allo my default SMS client. To be brutally optimistic, perhaps we may one day see Allo-iMessage integration if enough people adapt (these numbers would have to be huge). Either way, Allo is simply a great app. Yay, Google! As always, please like, subscribe, and share this article if you enjoyed.
Until next time, stay pal-atable! <3 (Still working on a hip but relevant catchphrase).