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ALLO and DUO - Google gets smart with messaging

Seth Barton
19 May 2016
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Book a restaurant with friends without ever leaving chat and see video callers before you answer

Google has produced numerous great products over the years and has succeeded beyond its wildest expectations with some - including the now ubiquitous Gmail. However, its messaging apps have always trailed the competition. Hangouts never really took off, with both Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp finding ways to get that critical mass of users required for success. Well, that looks about to change, with Google completely revamping its messaging offering in the form of ALLO and DUO.

The pair is designed to work together, but you can use just one if desired. ALLO is the text messaging part of the pair, while DUO handles video calls. Unlike Hangouts, ALLO is based around phone numbers, just like WhatsApp, so if you both have the app (and it's likely to become a default part of Android we'd think) then you can get chatting straight away.

Both apps will be available for Android and iOS as well, so pretty much anyone (sorry Windows Phone owners) can use them.

ALLO - Messaging with Google Assistant

ALLO does all the usual chat app stuff, letting you share photos and files and the like. It even has a couple of neat tricks such as letting you change the size of text dynamically before sending with a slider attached to the send button itself, so you can SHOUT or whisper, as Google puts it.

What's really clever, though, is the way ALLO brings Google search into chat. For example, if someone suggests going for Italian food, you can bring the new Google Assistant (which also powers the new Google Home device) into the conversation. It will then look at your locations and suggest appropriate Italian restaurants nearby, which everyone involved in the chat can see. If the restaurant supports OpenTable then you can even make the reservation within the chat.

This means you can agree on a restaurant, film or bar to meet at within the chat, without having to leave to go to search and then come back and report your findings to the others involved. It all happens there, letting people interject with comments. It's a brilliant idea and one that could hugely streamline and improve making everyday social plans. You can even talk directly to the Google Assistant alone, getting help and advice via the chat app.

If you're talking about something more serious than just your dinner plans, or you're very paranoid about your whereabouts, then ALLO has an Incognito Mode for you. Incognito chats are end-to-end encrypted, so your conversation should be completely private. You can also set an expiration date for such conversations, so they don't come back to haunt you later. Delete such a conversation and it's gone forever.

Finally, ALLO supports the Smart Reply system that Google has been trialling in Inbox (its alternative Gmail interface) for some time. This uses Google's machine learning AI to predict your responses to simple queries and even picture messages, providing you with one-tap responses when you're on the go.

DUO - See before you answer

DUO is simpler than ALLO though no less impressive. Its killer feature is that you can see the caller before you answer, and it's brilliant. As the phone rings with an incoming DUO video call, the person calling is already visible on the other end, so you get to see who it is, what mood they're in and where they are, before you even answer.

It's a huge step forward for video calling, as receiving one can seem a slightly onerous task at times, as you put on your best face before hitting answer. Now you get to see, hopefully, a smiling and enthusiastic face on the other end before you pick up, making you far more likely to take the call.

^ As Google's demo neatly showed, seeing who's actually calling before you pick up is a huge boon for video calling

As with ALLO, DUO is based on phone number contacts and so should spread quickly, especially with its brilliant headline feature. Google also claims to have worked hard on video call quality and is promising impressive results even at low bandwidths, with smooth transitions when network conditions vary.

Both ALLO and DUO will be available later this summer, hopefully arriving alongside Android N.