Google Allo: A Big Step Backward

Allo, Google’s new mobile only messaging app is pretty neat. It allows you to send encrypted messages, offers an AI assistant that has the power of Google’s search engine behind it, and offers a sleek, bug free app. But setting these features aside, Allo lacks a few necessary features that would make it a competitive messaging platform.

I love Google. I’ve been using gMail since the beta. Ditto for Google Voice. When Hangouts merged with Google Voice I gleefully hopped on the bandwagon. So when Google announced Allo, its new messaging app, I decided to give it a try.

Allo is a sleek app. Opening it for the first time the app asks you to type in your phone number. This introduction to the app illustrates the key failure of the messaging platform and why Allo is at best an interesting replacement for your phone’s built-in text messaging and at worst a big step backward in the same vein as Google Plus. Namely, Allo is tied to your phone number, not your Google Account, and only works on mobile devices.

Lets be clear: Allo is a nice messaging platform. Its essentially an attempt to take some fo the market share held by WhatsApp. Like WhatsApp, Allo offers a text alternative where users can send and receive encrypted text messages for free (ignoring the cost of your data plan). It excels in this function: theoretically you could ditch your SMS messaging altogether and use Allo or WhatsApp for the majority of your text messaging. In order to compete with WhatsApp Allo has the Assistant, a Siri competitor that uses Google search results to give you intelligent answers. Although useful, it’s not enough to compensate for its first main drawback: no PC support.

Sure, Allo looks sleek, but its essentially a step backward.
Sure, Allo looks sleek, but its essentially a step backward.

Allo only works on your mobile device. Messages sent to Allo can only be read on Allo. Unlike Google Voice/Hangouts, you can’t get a copy of your text messages emailed to you, you can’t access your messages in your browser and continue a conversation there. This may not seem like a huge problem to most of its user base (who perform the majority of their messaging on mobile anyway) but to Hangouts users this is a huge disadvantage.

Let’s look at Hangouts for a minute. Hangouts was originally built into Google Plus but eventually branched out to its own service that came to replace gMail chat. When it integrated with Google Voice it became an amazing messaging service that, despite its smaller user base, was superior to even Facebook Messenger.

With Hangouts (connected with your Google Voice account) you can send and receive SMS messages (including pictures but sadly not videos) for free. These messages are linked to your Google account. You have the option of having SMS messages sent to you via email (which I use for archive purposes) and even replying in email. This feature was supremely useful for individuals who wanted to send and receive SMS messages on their desktop, but now users can do so right within Hangouts on their web browser.

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Hangouts is essentially the same as Allo with Google Voice integration

Device doesn’t matter: I can begin a conversation on my phone, switch to my tablet and continue on my desktop. In addition, the other user doesn’t have to have Hangouts: I can text a phone from Hangouts an it shows up as a text message from a static number (my Google Voice number).

With Allo this is not the case. You can send text messages, but it comes from a randomly assigned six digit number. This isn’t too much of an obstacle: your friend simply needs to save this number into their contacts. But they can’t call you. In order to do that you’d need to download Duo, a completely separate App from Google that does the other half of what Hangouts does.

Hangouts is also a voice and video service. Allo isn’t. Duo only does video calls, meaning the only way to make voice calls using a Google service is Hangouts. With Hangouts installed on my phone I can send and receive phone calls, or video calls, on multiple devices, using WiFi or my cellular network.

Want to voice/video chat? Sorry, you'll need to use Google Duo or Google Hangouts
Want to voice/video chat? Sorry, you’ll need to use Google Duo or Google Hangouts

Hangouts is the superior messaging app from Google, and until Facebook Messenger added SMS and Voice capability it was the only app to be able to send SMS messages, Voice and Video calls across devices, using WiFi or Cell data.

There are a few things Allo does well, however. As an app alone it is much better and sleeker than Hangouts or Facebook Messenger. While each app easily gets bloated with useless junk files Allo seems to be able to keep its size down. This is useful if you have a device with limited storage capacity.

To be fair: Allo does look sleek and performs very well
To be fair: Allo does look sleek and performs very well

Where Allo truly has a leg up on Hangouts and Facebook Messenger (but lags behind its true competitor WhatsApp) is encryption. Let’s be clear: if encrypted messages is what you care most about then Hangouts and Facebook Messenger isn’t for you. But then again, neither is Allo.

Allo does not encrypt messages by default. Instead, you have to turn on Incognito mode, which will enable end to end encryption of messages. However, there is a catch: Incognito mode doesn’t seem to apply to messages sent to an SMS number, only to other Allo users. Additionally, there are some real security concerns regarding what information Google stores on its servers. Which of course is the same problem (even worse, to be honest) with Hangouts as there is no encryption offered there.

Privacy is a concern to me, but since I use Hangouts mainly for business I’m not too worried about the government reading my SMS conversations (which aren’t encrypted in any format). I don’t want them to do it mind you, but I’m not doing anything illegal here. I don’t send personal messages through Hangouts, I use iMessage which is actually one of the safest messaging platforms in terms of security (remember how much trouble the FBI had in hacking the San Bernardino suspect’s messages).

Sure Incognito mode is pretty secure... if you remember to activate it
Sure Incognito mode is pretty secure… if you remember to activate it

If Allo pales in comparison to other services in its cross platform capabilities, and fails to meet some standard security concerns, then what does Allo excel in?

The answer is the Google Assistant. And its great. I played around with it for about an hour or so and to be honest it’s better than Siri. The assistant is the only part of Allo that is actually tied to your Google account, meaning it has access to your search history and calendar, location and other data that allows it to make some truly remarkable predictions.

Google Assistant is pretty neat
Google Assistant is pretty neat

But it’s not enough to make Allo a useful messaging platform. In the end Allo is a weaker version of its competitor from the same company (Hangouts) and pales in comparison to its true competitor, WhatsApp.

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Christopher James

Christopher James

The Founder of TPK Media.

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