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Google debuts Allo, an AI-based chat app using its new assistant bot, smart replies and more

TechCrunch TechCrunch 18/05/2016 Ingrid Lunden

Today at I/O, Google took the wraps off its latest foray into the world of communications: the company announced Allo, a smart messaging app supercharged with machine learning and Google’s new Google Assistant service (its answer to Google’s Alexa), giving users the ability not just to chat to each other, but to call in Google (and later other third-party apps) to share media, plan events, buy things, and even think of what to say to each other. The iOS and Android app is being unveiled today, but it will only be live this summer, Google says.

If you are a Google news watcher, Allo may not come as a complete surprise: back in December the WSJ reported that the company was working on an AI-based messaging app: this appears to be that very product.

The app comes at an interesting time for Google. The company has made a number of attempts at building social products over the years, but products like Google+, Wave and Buzz never really caught on at a time when other products like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have taken off.

But on the other hand, Google is king when it comes to information services from Search to Maps and more; its email service is hugely popular; it has a formidable engineering machine learning teams; and Google’s Android is the world’s most popular smartphone platform.

So while there are already a number of popular messaging apps out there today like Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger; Viber; Line; WeChat and others like Slack focusing on enterprise — it’s no surprise to see Google pooling together its strong cards to see if it can make its own messaging product fly.

Allo is also something that Google hopes to meet a wider shift in how its own services are being used. “We are building search to be much more assistive,” Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai noted today during the I/O keynote when unveiling Google Assistant and the many helping nudges it gives you when you are looking for information through Google.com. He also noted that some 50% of queries these days are coming from mobile, so the audience is already there.

Although Google apparently tried to acquire at least one startup — 200 Labs, now called ChatFuel -to help build Allo, the app was developed in-house by Google’s own teams led by Erik Kay, director of engineering for Google’s Communication team, who also led today’s presentation at I/O.

Also important to note: The Hangouts mobile app — which also offers a chat option — is not going away. Google says it will continue to invest in and update this alongside Allo.

The features

As with other messaging apps, users of Allo will be able to find people to chat to based on their phone numbers, and those that use Google accounts for services like Gmail will also be able to call in their contacts from those services. In keeping with the bigger trends we’ve seen over user privacy in messaging services, and with Google’s own developments in Chrome, Google will give users the option to use Allo in ‘incognito’ mode, where chats are encrypted end-to-end, with discreet notifications — features that Google says it plans to continue to iterate on and update.

Users can have basic conversations with each other using Allo, but the app looks like it will really come into its own when using all of its bells and whistles.

These will include a Smart Reply feature that is similar to the one in Inbox, which will suggest responses to you for conversations so that you don’t need to type anything. As with Inbox’s Smart Reply, the app will “learn” how you reply to things to make more relevant suggestions to you. Smart Reply will also work with photos in Google Photos, suggesting replies to images (just a little creepy…) to keep a conversation going when you can’t be bothered to reply ‘yum’ to a food pic perhaps.

The other interesting thing is how Google has incorporated its own bot-based Google Assistant that it announced earlier during I/O.

This will have some natural language ability, so that you can chat with it directly, or ask it questions, or summon into a group chat when planning something, and it will give you replies. Initially the assistant will be able to reference services that you can already see in other, existing Google applications: for example, plane times, sports scores, what’s on at the cinema, place locations, and search queries.

Over time, Google will likely let developers integrate with the assistant bot so that it can reference information from these third-party services. Time will tell if the assistant proves to work better than some of the other bots that we’ve seen launched from other messaging companies.

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