Allo is a quality app, but Google isn't giving it a real chance

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Google needs better Allo and Duo integration
To say that Google has had a confused and confusing strategy with its communication apps is something of an understatement. For a while, it looked as though Hangouts would be the focus of Google’s efforts — it had messaging, voice chat, group video chat, and it was available across mobile and desktop platforms. Then Google decided to blow it up.

Now, Google has pushed Hangouts towards enterprise users and split it into Meet and Chat. The idea was for Hangouts Meet to be the group video app and Chat to be the text messaging app, although in practice Chat still doesn’t exist as a standalone app, Meet has chat functionality, and Hangouts still exists in its traditional form for consumer use.

The easiest portion of Google’s communication app mess was Google Messenger (later renamed Android Messages, because none of this story is allowed to be simple) as its single-purpose SMS app. Impressively, despite intentions to push carriers to embrace the open Rich Communications Services (RCS) standards, Messages has remained the simple, focused app it was released to be.

However, just to make sure things were still a bit confusing, Google has the last two pieces of its communications app strategy — and likely the most important two pieces — Allo and Duo. Allo is Google’s answer to services like iMessage and WhatsApp, while Duo is Google’s one-to-one video chat app (although there have been rumors of group video chat coming, which would make the name “Duo” somewhat confusing.)

Strictly as they are, Allo and Duo are great apps and work extremely well at their given purposes. Of course, what Google kind of forgot was that the quality of communications apps doesn’t much matter if people don’t use the apps.

Quality apps with few users

Google made a big initial push with marketing for Allo and Duo, but it doesn’t seem like the services have made much of a dent in the market dominated by WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and iMessage. And, I’d suggest the problem is that Google has taken the Googley path instead of learning a lesson from those competitors.

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WhatsApp grew its user base organically as the best cross-platform messaging service to connect users internationally (avoiding SMS fees), but also importantly, it capitalized on the void left by the death of BlackBerry Messenger. Google didn’t have that benefit because the messaging space was already saturated. Rather, Google should have learned a lesson from Facebook and iMessage — take advantage of the platform.

Facebook Messenger grew because Facebook itself was huge and it was simply easy for the users already in that world to stick with the in-house messaging app. Apple pulled a similar trick by packaging iMessage in its stock SMS app and adding features only available to users communicating between iOS devices (no green bubbles allowed!)

By contrast, Google made two great apps and released them with the hope that people would not only start using those apps, but convince friends and family to do the same. It didn’t help that Allo launched without a web version and Duo was quickly made less useful after WhatsApp added video and audio calling, but Google’s biggest mistake was in thinking people would switch on their own.

A more forceful approach

There are some hints that Google has learned that lesson somewhat, and may be more aggressive in pushing users towards its apps. Duo has been integrated into the Google Dialer so video calls can be started from phone calls, as well as some integration with Android Messages to initiate calls from there as well. And, some devices can receive Duo calls even if the app isn’t installed (of course, why anyone would initiate a Duo call to someone that doesn’t have the app installed is a question with strange answers.)

Given these integrations with Duo and the fact that Google has already taken a page from Apple in having separate chat and video apps, it feels right to wonder why Google’s hasn't taken the iMessage route with Allo and whether deeper integration of Google's chat app might be coming. Allo is a great app with few users, so it makes sense that Google should combine Android Messages with Allo to create a singular Google messaging app. It could work the exact same way as iMessage — SMS by default if one user doesn’t have Allo, and full Allo features when everyone in the chat have the app — and having Allo be a standard part of Google’s default Messages app (or visa versa) would mean more people have it by default.

Admittedly, this is a harder thing to pull off for Google because various manufacturers have their own messaging apps, so the main thing standing in the way of making this move would be relationships with manufacturers. Or, relationships with one manufacturer in particular: Samsung.

A new opportunity

More and more Android manufacturers are moving towards a lighter skin and fewer proprietary apps (even Samsung to an extent), so now might be a good time for Google to turn on SMS functionality in Allo (which already exists in limited forms to aid with inviting other users to the service) and kill off Android Messages. The path for Google was slightly easier with Duo, because most Android OEMs don't have proprietary video chat apps; trying to take over the default SMS app with something that doubles as a competitor to WhatsApp or iMessage is a different thing altogether, especially if you factor in carrier bloat (I'm sure Verizon wouldn't be too happy with an SMS/Allo hybrid on devices that have Verizon Messages+, even if no one ever uses Verizon's app.)

It's possible Google might try out the SMS/Allo combo app on Pixel phones first before going wider, but as yet we haven't seen any indication Google is planning such a mashup, despite how much sense it makes both from the perspective of gaining more Allo users and in simplifying Google's communication app offerings. An iMessage style SMS/Allo app would leave Google with a much simpler story with its communications apps: Allo is for text messaging, Duo is for video and audio calls, and Hangouts is for business (although the confusion with Hangouts is still too much to deal with in this thought experiment.)

It sounds simple, but when it comes to Google’s communications apps, it’s never as easy as it sounds.

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