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Google puts Assistant into its Android texting app, and it's pretty cool

The Google Assistant for Android Messages announcement came at MWC 2019.

My new buddy Alvaro, giving a walk-through of Assistant's new texting feature.
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Google Assistant lives in your home and might have its own button on your phone. Now it's in your Android Messages texting app, too. I got a hands-on demo of how exactly it works, here at MWC 2019 in Barcelona. 

Each year at the world's biggest phone show, Google transforms a concrete passageway between two convention center halls into a colorful outdoor "booth" that draws conference-goers with the promise of comfortable seating and treats. This year, that included a juice bar set up to show a transcription feature for people with hearing impairments, and a coffee shop that showed off Google Pay and this new Assistant in Android Messages demo. 

The idea is that you "pay" for the coffee and while you wait, you get the Assistant demo. It's a bit contrived, but the "coffee shop" was adorable in the most Googley way. And the demo itself? Pretty cool, actually.

Now playing: Watch this: Google Assistant makes your Android texts smarter

Assistant for Android Messages is the latest example of Google's embrace of AI to understand context and anticipate what you want. AI may not be as sexy as foldable phones or 5G, but it's quietly making its way onto nearly every high-end phone through the camera app and through tools like this. For Google, a robust AI engine is one more weapon in its arsenal against Amazon's Alexa assistant, Google Assistant's most significant rival for an AI ecosystem whose real prize is your smart home.

A demo team member called Alvaro walked me through it using two phones with the new feature loaded on. He texted "me" to ask if I wanted to see a movie. A bubble popped up at the bottom, a lot like a text suggestion. 

Tap it and you authorize Assistant to insert an info card into the conversation. It's like a slice of a Google search result all laid out for us. We both could then tap that to see which movies are playing nearby (but not buy tickets, not yet). I then texted back asking if he wanted to grab hypothetical dinner before our hypothetical show, and another Assistant suggestion appeared asking if I wanted to look up nearby restaurants. 


Google Assistant for Android Messages inserts informational cards into your text flow.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

When you tap that module, you can see local spots, choose one and send that info to the thread. 

Right now, Assistant for Android Messages only works with movies and restaurants, but you can easily see how this could expand to other facets of daily life.

What I like about this is how natural it is, and how it saved time looking up information individually. It felt more real-time, more collaborative and better for lazy researchers who don't want to leave the warmth and comfort of the texting app to launch a separate search query. In the demo I had, it seemed convenient and unobtrusive.

Google Assistant for Android Messages has apparently already rolled out to phones in 24 countries, if the conditions are right -- you have to have the right combination of carrier and phone. I'm trying to get a little more clarity there, so bear with me.

The new Assistant feature borrows elements from Google Allo, the now-defunct AI messaging app Google pushed hard for phones before pulling the plug. 

Published: Feb. 26 at 10:49 a.m. PT
Feb. 27 at 3:07 a.m. PT: Added video.