A year ago, when Google began to unwind Google+, it felt like a positive sign for the company’s underperforming social efforts. After sinking years into building a product overstuffed with photos, communication tools, link-sharing, and discussions, Google began to shrink them into more manageable tools. The results were largely positive. Google Photos has become a monster with 200 million monthly users, the company said during its I/O keynote. And communities evolved into a more modern take on message boards, emerging last week as a new mobile app called Spaces.
But when it comes to the killer app of the mobile era — messaging — Google’s efforts aren’t shrinking at all. Instead they’re multiplying into a dizzying array of disconnected services. Three years after trying to unify its messaging efforts under the Hangouts brand, Google has decided once again to let experimentation reign. And it could mean that Allo, Google’s new messaging app with an integrated virtual assistant, never gets the support it needs to take off.
Google’s history with messaging goes back more than a decade. The company has offered all sorts of communication products, from Google Talk to Buzz to Hangouts. Some have been more successful than others, but none have reached the scale of the game’s biggest players. In the past, Google blamed this failure in part on the large number of disconnected messaging products it had created. "I think we’ve done an incredibly poor job of servicing our users here," Nikhyl Singhal, then the director of real-time communications for Google, told The Verge in 2013 when introducing Hangouts.
"We've done an incredibly poor job of servicing our users."
There’s power in focus. Facebook Messenger surged to 900 million monthly users after being spunoff into a dedicated app. WhatsApp, which is now owned by Facebook but still operates mostly independently, has more than 1 billion monthly users. Yes, Facebook has a social expertise that Google lacks. But it also told a coherent story from the start. Want to message someone who uses Facebook? Use Facebook Messenger. Everything that’s come since started with that one simple idea.
Meanwhile, Google’s confused approach to messaging has left it lagging behind at the same time messaging has become the hottest development platform in tech. Startups and large companies alike are racing to build commerce, customer support, and other services into messaging apps. In March, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said the shift from apps to bot-powered messaging apps would be as "profound" as the shift from desktop PCs to mobile phones.
Given the environment, it’s little wonder Google would attempt a new, bot-powered take on messaging. Allo’s sales pitch leads with artificial intelligence. By typing "@google," you can access a wide range of services, from basic web queries to making restaurant reservations. Think Facebook Messenger, if its M assistant were globally available and integrated into your other chats. Allo’s artificial intelligence manifests in another way: as suggested "smart replies" to messages from your friends. A friend suggests you eat Italian food; a smart reply suggests "yummy!" Smart replies work with photos, too — and I can’t wait to see the suggested reply the first time somebody sexts me in Allo.
A strategic imperative, not a passion project
There are other doodads scattered around the user interface: a drawing tool, a la Snapchat; some stickers; and a way to change the size of a text message by dragging your finger up and down. It’s all fine, as far as it goes, but the features add up to little more than window dressing on an app that feels more like a strategic imperative than anybody’s passion product.
Hangouts was a strategic imperative, too. Designed as a fix for Google’s increasingly fragmented communication efforts, Hangouts launched at I/O 2013 as Google’s one true platform for communicating on Gmail, Android, iOS, and Chrome. But it was either unwilling or unable to draw on its native social network, Gmail, to grow, and it was slow to add features.
Hangouts has struggled with the perception that it is slow, clunky, and unreliable — even among Googlers, for whom it is among the least popular internal products that employees are required to use. While Hangouts languished, Google allowed new messaging functions to creep into other apps. You can now send messages in YouTube, for example, or in its invite-only Who’s Down app, among other places.
All of which make it hard to see how Allo (or Duo, its FaceTime clone sister app) will break out of the pack. Hangouts will remain in active development, Google tells me. And messaging features will presumably continue to proliferate in Google’s products, if for no other reason than all software expands until it includes messaging. On one hand, Allo is a significant new twist on messaging from one of the world’s most dominant companies; on the other, it mostly feels like a hedge against the success of similar products. If Google later decides to retreat, it’s left itself plenty of options.
It could have competed with iMessage
And that’s a shame, because Google really can shake up a space when it wants to. When it created Gmail, it gave users exponentially more free storage than had ever been offered. When it created Google Voice, it offered a powerful second phone number and automatic voicemail transcriptions. And with Photos last year, it combined unlimited high-resolution storage with wildly powerful search.
Given the size of the opportunity around a global-scale communication app, Allo was ripe for a similarly attention-getting feature set. Had it integrated with the native SMS app on Android, or allowed you to send messages from the desktop, it could have debuted as a powerful competitor to Apple’s iMessage. Instead we’re getting a relatively standard messaging app augmented by bots, which have taken on a distinct flavor-of-the-month feel since Facebook introduced them to a chorus of shrugs at F8.
Three years ago, Google set out to fix its chaotic messaging strategy with a single app. This summer, getting the full Google messaging experience will mean downloading as many as four apps: Hangouts, Allo, Duo, and Google Messenger, for sending SMS messages on Android. Maybe inside Google that feels like the future. From the outside, it doesn’t look much like progress.