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Why Google's Allo Might Be DOA

Google just can't seem to stop rolling out communication and social media apps, because on September 21, the company released yet another messaging app called Allo. That brings the number of Google messaging apps to three (Hangouts, Messenger and Allo), and that's even before you count things like Google's new video calling app Duo, and seemingly abandoned communication projects such as Google+ and Google Voice.

That's a pretty fragmented approach to solving the problems of communication, suggesting that Google can’t get a grasp on communication apps. And it only gets worse when you take a look at how limited Allo is.

It doesn't really work with SMS.

That’s a big flaw. For people who like to streamline their digital lives, it means Allo can't replace apps like iMessage or Hangouts, which do support SMS. And while it was looking like Allo might come with support for the upcoming RCS (rich communication services) standard, that didn't happen either.

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Convoluted SMS relay

If you use Allo to text others and send something to a non-Android contact, instead of your text showing up as a message from you, your text goes to Google first, which then relays your message to the intended recipient using one of those anonymous 5-digit numbers. Then, the sender's name and number show up in the body of text, which isn't great for security, but it's also pretty annoying, because it shows up every time until the receivers get annoyed enough to download Allo.

No multi-device support

Because Allo uses phone numbers as its login info, you can't use the same account across multiple devices. Even worse, there is no desktop client or web browser extension like there is for pretty much every other chat app, so if you want to type out replies when you're on your PC, you're out of luck.

No in-app GIF support

There's few things in life as satisfying as sending someone a well-timed gif, especially if it plays natively inside of the app. But on Allo, you have to resort to sending to the gif as a link instead of seeing it directly in the app, which adds another step between you and a swift GIF bombing. Meanwhile, iOS 10 messages offers extensive GIF support.

And even though I know Yahoo owns Tumblr and has access to a big library of gifs, when my fantasy football app is better at trolling my friends with Pokemon gifs than a brand new chat app, I'm a pretty sad Pikachu.

Google Assistant needs more help

I know Google says that Allo's Assistant feature is just a preview, but when Google Now is a better assistant than the one in Allo, that's kind of a problem. On a number of occasions, I've asked Google Now and Google Assistant the same question, only to have the Google Assistant spin its wheels while Google Now easily answered my queries. Presumably, the Assistant will get better the more you use it, but who’s going to keep trying if the initial experience isn’t up to snuff?

No one is on Allo yet

You can see how many other people in your contacts list are using Allo by starting an Incognito Chat and checking out the number of possible recipients. And out of the 150 or so contacts in my phone, there's a grand total three people I can choose: my girlfriend who I persuaded to join Allo so I could test it out, an old tech-savvy friend from college and another tech journalist. That's it. Will that number grow over time? Possibly, but right now if you’re using Allo, you’re in pretty select company — not ideal for a communication app.

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It's a bit buggy

Even when I’m chatting with people who have the app, Android still gets confused and bombards me with notifications that I've received a new message, in addition to Android system alerts saying someone has contacted me using Allo, which I should only get if I didn't have the app installed.

Hangouts is still better

The biggest problem with Allo is the existence of Hangouts, Google’s audio and video messaging app. Hangouts supports SMS, works on way more platforms and has a lot more features. If Google really wanted to push its new Assistant, it would have had better success adding that feature to Hangouts and rebranding it, rather than make a whole new app.

Bottom Line

It would be harsh to dismiss Allo as a complete failure. It's a decent app, and after a few days playing around with the Assistant, I can see the value of having a friendly helper who can inject some timely info into the middle of a conversation. I also absolutely love the Party Marshmallow sticker pack, but at this point, that's not enough to get me to switch over to Allo from the apps I’m already using.

Good enough just isn't going to cut it — not when so many other messaging options exist — and if Google wants to be a serious player in the messaging world it needs to do a whole lot better.