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Google’s Reply app is woefully bland — exactly the way it should be

Google’s Reply app is woefully bland — exactly the way it should be

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Photo by Michele Doying / The Verge

Last week, Google’s Area 120 division announced that it’s building a new app that would add Smart Reply features to a number of popular messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger, Slack, and Hangouts. This week, Android Police surfaced an APK so you can download and try Reply on Android devices right now. Note, however, that it’s just a beta, so try it at your own risk.

In my initial testing, the app does work as promised, though it is a little less contextual than Gmail’s version of the feature. When you set up the app, you can add different modes such as “Vacation responder” or “Urgent sound” so the app can detect tones from incoming messages and know how to respond to them. Based on your phone accelerometer, Reply can also tell if you’re in a vehicle or biking and can auto-respond appropriately. One of the options in Reply is “sleeping,” though it is unclear to me how the app can tell when you’re in bed versus just hanging out in your house with your phone on a table.


In its current beta build, Reply is unable to parse my calendar or track commute time via Google Maps, which is unfortunate since they are the two features people seemed most excited about. My colleague Jake Kastrenakes asked me a series of time availability questions, but Reply would not recognize that I already had plans for 5:30PM.

I specifically put “Dinner” in my calendar for 5PM. Sorry, Jake!
I specifically put “Dinner” in my calendar for 5PM. Sorry, Jake!

The app can, however, locate you based on GPS. A “Where are you?” query offered the smart reply of my exact address along with a Google Maps link. I attempted to add that address as “Work” in the app, but Reply just hangs at the address search page, then cancels out of the menu option. Since I couldn’t clarify which address was work and home, Reply would offer completely contradictory responses, like this:


It also seemed to lean toward affirmative responses, which makes social situations difficult for me, a hermit.

Some suggestions seem completely nonsensical or useless, with three replies that essentially say the same thing rather than offering some variety. Often, Reply just feels like you’re role-playing as Google Assistant, responding to random opinions, statements, and questions with utter blandness.


Reply feels like you’re role-playing as Google Assistant

And in a way, maybe that’s a good thing. You want the robotic options to be available when you need them instead of pre-writing complete responses for you. I have no doubt that AI and messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger, can tell who your parents or significant others are based on how often you talk to them or make plans together. If Reply begins crafting fully passable responses, we’ll all just be stuck in an endless loop of talking to chatbots instead of each other.

That dystopia is not here yet — at least, not today.