For a developer conference, it is odd that Google would announce chat apps ahead of more important announcements such as Android N and Android Wear. But Allo and Duo, the company’s new chat and video calling apps respectively, are each unique apps in their own way.
For a while now, Google has not been able to create a truly useful chat app. Its Hangouts app is all but deserted these days, as other companies create better and more compelling chat apps with genuinely useful features. Google is trying to change that with Allo.
Allo is a text messaging app that’s tied to your phone number, and it’s got some genuinely unique features you may eventually use a lot (should you use it). Chat bots are going to be the norm this year, and Google’s added its own chat bot into Allo. @google, as it is currently called, is basically an on-demand member of any chat. You can call upon it to get instant results, whether it is search queries, nearby attractions, and, being Google, plugs into third-party apps to make it even more useful.
At the Google I/O keynote, Google demonstrated how you can do many things within Allo that would previously requires you to constantly switch between apps to do them. In a conversation, you can ask @google to display funny images, display search info, or locate nearby restaurants – things you’d usually do on the Google app, not in a chat app.
Just as impressive is the use of Google’s Smart Reply technology. Previously only available in Google’s Inbox app for emails, the company’s incredible machine learning technology is now robust enough to offer contextual replies within any conversation.
This is further enhanced by Google’s image recognition capabilities. Users can easily send images in a conversation, and Google can accurately identify objects in them to offer contextually useful Smart Reply options. It’s all really intuitive and surprisingly good (in the demo, of course).
If you’re bored, you can initiate a chat with @google itself. You can ask it contextual questions and it’ll be able to hold a conversation, or play some games with it. Again, things you can’t previously do within a chat app.
And, pulling a page from the Chrome browser, Allo has an incognito chat mode. Conversations in incognito mode are encrypted end to end, which means even Google cannot see what’s in the conversations. For now, there’s not much else, but Google says there will be more features in incognito chat in future, including expiring messages.
If all that sounds like a lot, the video calling app, Duo, is a lot more simple. It’s essentially Google’s version of FaceTime, and like Allo it is tied to a phone number, instead of your Google account.
The interface is beautifully stripped down to the essentials, but what makes Duo unique is what happens when you’re calling someone. The Android version of the app will show a live preview feed of you while the call is being made, letting whoever you’re calling see what’s happening before they even answer.
And the magic extends when they answer: that live preview instantly turns into a video call. What Duo does is to basically initiate a one-way video call before the other side connects; of course, the technicalities are a lot more complicated.
Like Allo, Duo calls are encrypted end-to-end, allowing you plenty of privacy. Unlike other video calling apps, Duo is highly focused and light, so you’ll only get options to flip the camera or mute the microphone, and that’s it. The whole app is only around 5MB.
Both apps will be free, and are available on both Android and iOS. They’ll be released later this year.