What does Google's new bot-powered chat app, Allo, mean for the future of human communication?
At I/O 2016, Google introduced not one but two new messaging apps, one text-based, the other video. It's easy to make a joke at this point, appending them the fatiguing list of GTalk, Buzz, Wave, Plus, Hangouts, Spaces, and other messaging or hybrid messaging services we've been subjected to over the years. But Allo, the bot-enabled text messenger, and Duo, the instant video messenger, have some important differences. Critically, they're shipping as apps first, not web services. And they're shipping for iOS as well as Android.
Along with Instant Apps and Android apps for Chrome OS, it appears Google is no longer willing to be the last non-native holdout in a world where web web-based performance was always coming but never arriving.
Moreover, the company understands how valuable messaging is, given the attention collected by everything from WhatsApp to Messenger to iMessage to Snapchat, and is willing to throw two more services on the fire to see if something finally catches light.
Both apps look brilliant and terrible, which is the case with most messengers. But both also promise to be brilliant and terrible in ways beyond what any previous apps have been capable. And that's worth a closer look. Let's start with...
Much like emoji have wound us back to the pictographic days before written language, messaging apps are increasingly erasing the advances of graphical interfaces and sending us back to the command line.
Trendy terms like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Natural Language, and more are getting bandied about a lot, but from a human perspective we're back to typing things into a prompt and waiting for a digital response. Like WOPR from War Games, only less for starting thermonuclear war and more for ordering curry.
Most of the Allo demo was smoke and mirrors, with queries and commands given that would, in any real life situation, require much more prep or the exchange of much greater and potentially more tedious amounts of information. For example, that bot better make damn sure I get tickets for Civil War in blessed 2D, but not if the show starts after 10. Then I'll take IMAX in 3D but only if they're doing assigned seats. And not in the closer place across the river. They don't take Wallet. I want the place west of town. We clear bot? Don't make me type that again!
That'll all work itself out over time. Maybe ugly and publicly at first, but it'll improve. It's more the social ramifications that interest me longer term.
Bots before humans
We've gone through read-receipts, instant emoji, soundbites, stickers, quick replies, and more just to help us weigh how engaged our chat buddies are, and how engaged we have to be in return. Or not. Now, the bots.
I can already tell when a friend is shining me off with canned replies. The "Okay" that comes from an Apple Watch is visually indistinguishable from one that's typed out. But I almost always know. It feels different.
What happens when, instead of just offering canned responses, they start offering canned conversations?
I was joking with some friends about this after the keynote, but it's not hard to imagine an old friend from school, an in-law, or a work associate messaging you where you can't be rude but you just don't want to talk to them. Like, at all.
So, you just flip your Allo-bot into full-on auto with instructions to "keep engaged for 5 minutes but don't commit to any further actions!!" And then off it goes. It picks responses based on it's Machine Learning, but it knows not to agree to any further conversations or meetings. That way, your calendar stays clear.
Of course, you have no way of knowing whether, after a minute, the person on the other end has flipped on their Allo-bot as well. Then the entirety of your non-relationship becomes two bots chatting noncommittally—and perhaps monstrously—into the inter-void.)
"Old person yelling at the bots" will certainly be a meme soon, but all of this does make me wonder about the human part of human interface, and about not only how we're interacting but why.
The more immediate problem with Allo, though, is security.
Allo, like Chrome has a poorly-named "Incognito Mode" that makes it sound like anonymity and privacy but really only offers security and ephemerality. The whole system is based on connecting you through phone number as unique identifier, so how Incognito can it be?
Anyway, much like Chrome is purports to reduce the records of your digital activities. In this case by turning on end-to-end encryption. That E2E is state-based, though, is horrifying. As someone who's actually stayed awake during Citizenfour, I'd much rather have instance-based security. If I'm messaging a human, it's end-to-end encrypted whether in ephemeral mode or not. If I'm messaging a bot, it's not.
Intelligence agencies and hackers, foreign and domestic, can know all about my movie ticket purchases and curry orders all they want. But my communications are mine.
I get that Google's massive machine learning farms need as much data as they can get to offer as good a service as they possibly can, and I'm getting free bots in exchange, but that still sounds like too great a risk for too little reward. Let those machines earn their learning. (Yes, I basically just told bots to get a job.)
- Read my colleague, Daniel Bader's excellent and more optimistic take on Allo on our sibling site, Android Central
The new Google
Gripes aside, I really like the new Google. With Alphabet out the way, it seems like the company has gained some much-needed focus, if not discipline.
It still feels like the product managers are running the show, with apps and services being created and released because they can be, not because they're a unified plan for it. But, baby steps. These are still bots, after all. Not yet Cylons.
Still, I'm hesitant to jump on new Google apps and services these days. I've been burned too often. Or Jabbered. Or Buzzed. Or Waved. Or Hungout. Or whatever.
Virtual real-estate for companies like Google is effectively free, but for us it's a lot of work. Getting set up, building and maintaining relationships—tending to our virtual messaging gardens—takes time and effort. Every one we add reduces the time and effort we have for others. I'm not sure I can justify watering my Allo garden if it means letting my Snapchat garden, or Messenger garden, or Hangouts garden, or—wow, exhausting—go dark and desiccated. It feels like I can't keep up already, that I'm always right about to go into messaging receivership.
We're on the edge of another great revolution in computing, though. Those trendy words I mentioned at the top, from Artificial Intelligence to Machine Learning, Natural Language to Sequential Inference, how we interact with technology is changing again and changing fast.
I'm criticizing Google here because the company fielded products worth criticizing. With I/O 2016 behind us and WWDC 2016 coming up fast, the bigger question is—how will Apple compete in this space and this bold new era?