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Allo, Duo, Google Messenger, Hangouts. Google has three 'messenger' apps too many

Commentary: Does Google really need four chat apps? This veteran social chatter says no.

Taylor Martin/CNET

One killer messenger app. That's all you need. Not the four that Google seems to think you do. At Google I/O, the Internet giant's annual conference for developers, Google unwrapped two new, very distinct messenger apps that will work on iOS and Android phones "this summer." There's Allo, for messages and emojis, and Duo for videoconferencing. This is already on top of Google Messenger and Hangouts, each of which handles both texts and video calls.

What gives, Google? Do we really need all these messaging apps?

Google says we do. Allo and Duo are both apps that Google built from scratch, not based on any existing code for Hangouts or Messenger. And both new communication apps draw deeply on machine learning as part of the artificial intelligence future that CEO Sundar Pichai champions as the way forward.

Allo's goal is to learn your rhythms and responses and offer suggestions in the form of quick replies. So if someone asks, "How're you doing?" the app might suggest you type in "Awesome!" alongside an emoji of dog doodoo. You choose the suggestion you want, or respond with something else, and behind the scenes Allo records and remembers your answer, maybe for next time.

Duo's flashiest video-calling trick is Knock-Knock, which essentially rings your buddy with a preview of what you look like and what you're doing this very minute. That means there can be no delays between broadcasting your goings-on and the moment the person on the other end receives the knock and picks up the call (or not).

Allo and Duo work as they do, Google says, because the programs stand on their own; they're light and finely tuned, not burdened by too many features that do other things.

"We didn't want to weigh down the [engineering] team with decisions from previous products," Erik Kay, Google's engineering director for communication software, told CNET. Because coders were given the freedom to create from the ground up, Google said, they were able to concentrate on fresh, innovative ways to make next-gen talking tools.

Focused engineering may be Google's reason for keeping the two separate, but there are other considerations as well. These apps work on phones and tether to your phone number, whereas Hangouts is purposely cross-platform, so it works on desktops as nimbly as it does on mobile.

Google also says that different consumers use apps for different purposes, so you might turn to Hangouts for a certain group of friends and Facebook Messenger for another. Meanwhile, you might Skype your in-laws on the weekend but call up Duo's Knock-Knock video to chat with your sweetheart.

Maybe this is the behavior that winds up happening, but is it what we really want? I don't. I already use Hangouts and Facebook Messenger, texting, WeChat, What'sApp, Skype Messenger, Slack (for work) and sometimes even Twitter. (There's also Kik, Peach, Snapchat, and good ol' Yahoo Messenger too, of course.)

For my life, the plethora of messaging apps is simply too many. All these messengers are exhausting to juggle, and I'm constantly missing messages that slip through the cracks; notifications are easy to miss if I put aside my phone for awhile. Can this helter-skelter multiple-messenger monitoring really be what Google wants? Or is a simpler scenario, where one chat app reigns, the preferable path? (WhatsApp, for instance, tends to rule the roost in Europe, while WeChat dominates in Asia.)

With Allo, Duo, Hangouts and Messenger, Google is certainly in a position to snatch the messaging space from four corners, and could do it too. But it's more likely that Allo and Duo are Google's real investment for the future, with Hangouts and Messenger hedging those bets. Google is probably throwing Allo and Duo at the wall to see what sticks; then it'll strategize next steps from there.