Does the world need another messaging app? Google says yes. And it believes its Allo messaging app is different enough to compete against Apple's iMessage, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and all the rest. That's because it's the first to include Google Assistant, which I can only describe as a mega chatbot that uses artificial intelligence to bring you answers in a conversational manner.
Available as a free download today on Android and iOS, Allo was first introduced during Google I/O in conjunction with Google's web-calling app Duo (which, since launching a month ago, has now reached 10 million downloads on Android).
Though it sends and receives messages as well as the others, Allo has its own promising features that I found useful. Read on to see what makes Allo stand out and if it has what it takes to be your new chat app.
Google Assistant: The ultimate bot
Allo's standout feature is Google Assistant, which is basically a bot you can chat with that uses Google's vast search database to answer several kinds of questions you throw its way. For example, you can type, "Cafes nearby?" and it will find popular coffee shops in your area (just make sure you have location turned on). You can ask it to translate phrases in different languages, show your latest emails, look up airfare prices and other common queries.
If you're feeling particularly playful (or lonely), you can play games with it too. (The geography quiz game is educational, but I particularly like the one where you have to guess the movie based only on emojis.)
If you're not already in Allo, it's faster to press the home button and relay questions to Apple's Siri or Google's other digital assistant, Google Now. But Assistant does come in handy when the app is open in front of you (plus you can still ask it questions verbally), and you want to look something up without leaving.
This is especially useful when you're in a group chat. A search for "popular bars" shows results to everyone on the chat thread, so the group can plan from there. Allo can settle debates, too -- like when you and your friend can't remember what last night's sports score was or when a particular movie came out. Assistant will immediately put the issue to rest, in writing.
Smart Reply: Never at a loss for words
Smart Replies are generic responses that pop up above the keyboard and text field. Though the replies are canned (for example, autogenerated responses to the question, "Are you busy?" include "What's up?" "Not really, you?" and, "Yes. Why?"), they can be quite colloquial and somewhat natural-sounding time-savers.
This is a little unnerving since you're never quite sure if the responses you receive are authentic or just a Smart Reply. The phrases also feel pretty inane if you try to form a full conversation with them (replying to a conversation formed completely from Smart Reply started to feel like chatting with the SmarterChild bot circa 2001). However, they are useful when you're on the go and have to quickly respond, or you just don't have the brainpower to trudge through online small talk. Just don't try and use it for more sensitive, serious conversations.