When Google revamped Talk as Hangouts in 2013, that was supposed to be the company’s unified messaging product going forward. That hasn’t exactly happened. In fact, right at the top of the I/O 2016 keynote, Google announced two new communication apps that take a bite out of Hangouts: Allo is a text messaging client and Duo is a video chat app. Unlike Hangouts, these apps don’t require a Google account, just a phone number.
With this announcement, you now have a truly ridiculous number of messaging options in Google’s ecosystem. Hangouts has been a chronically troubled app that regularly lags the rest of Android on features and is often criticized for poor performance. It took Google a few years to fully integrate SMS and Google Voice SMS into the app, and then we got a new dedicated SMS app called Messenger with Lollipop. Just several days ago Google launched another messaging app called Spaces that seems to replicate the group chat capabilities of Hangouts.
Now, we come to Allo and Duo. These apps appear to recognize the huge success WhatsApp has had in getting people to sign up with just a phone number. When you log into Allo or Duo, you’ll confirm your mobile number and that’s how everyone you know will find you. Both apps will also be cross-platform on Android and iOS. While Hangouts is on the web and iOS in addition to Android, the phone number signups will make things smoother when you try to get your friends to use one of these new apps. They’re also end-to-end encrypted, something people care a great deal about these days.
Allo will include integration with Google’s improved Assistant. With Google Home, that’s a voice-based system, but it’s all text in Allo. It works as a chatbot when you’re having a conversation to pull up relevant data like restaurants, movies, or just pictures of cats and stuff. It can predict responses to messages, and even photos using Google’s computing cloud. In your Allo contact list will be an entry for the Google bot that you can talk to 1-on-1 to get information from Google’s vast network in a conversational way. I’m not sold on this as a way of getting things done, but bots like this are becoming quite popular.
Duo was designed to be a very clean and fast video chat application. At least on this count, I can see why people would want an alternative to Hangouts. Video chats in that app are often slow to load and eat up loads of bandwidth. Duo is explicitly just for two-person calls, and there’s a cool feature called Knock Knock when you start a call: the person receiving the video call will get a live feed from the other person’s device before they answer. It’s like looking through the peephole in a door.
Duo doesn’t have any machine learning, image recognition, or any other bells and whistles. What it does have is WebRTC and the Quic programming protocol. Google says this makes Duo very efficient and able to stream 720p video even on iffy connections.
Both Allo and Duo are coming out over the summer. At that point, you’ll have to decide if you want to try to get your friends and family to start using them. It’s not like there aren’t already a dozen perfectly good alternatives to both apps, but at least it’ll be an easier sell than Hangouts was.