Google should have won the mobile messaging wars. It had a huge head start. Through Gmail, its billion-user email service, it had the perfect way in: Google Chat, or Gchat, the email platform’s built-in instant messaging service.
But when it came time to translating Gchat’s success to smartphones, Google (GOOG) fell short. It tried to integrate the service with Hangouts, its live video-calling service, and the resulting product was confusing to use.
In the meantime, better, mobile-first messaging services like Facebook’s WhatsApp and Apple’s (aapl) iMessage, the default messaging service on iPhones, have thrived. Even Facebook (FB), which was also slow to pick up on the increasingly important mobile messaging market, acquired its way in, spending $22 billion in 2014 to purchase WhatsApp. Then Facebook made its homegrown messenger product, Facebook Messenger, into a standalone product. Facebook Messenger now has more than a billion monthly active users, and WhatsApp has as many.
Thus far, Google has been also-ran in the messaging category, despite owning Android, the world’s most popular mobile operating system. That’s a problem, since Google’s competitors are increasingly stuffing more services—the kinds of things you would seek out via Google search—directly into their apps. Last week, Facebook announced the ability to buy things like plane tickets and clothing inside Facebook Messenger.
Today, Google hopes to reverse its messaging fortunes with the launch of Allo, a new app it revealed at its developer conference this spring.
“Messaging is not a solved problem,” says Nick Fox, head of Google’s communications products business.
Google sees a “paradigm shift” happening in messaging, from sending simple texts to a world where people can “express themselves more fully and naturally,” he says.
Between WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Snapchat, and boring old text messages, smartphone users have no shortage of options for communicating. But Allo comes with a few differentiators that Google is hoping will lure users away from the existing options: it’s “smart,” meaning the app uses artificial intelligence to help you make decisions in group texts (“Where should we eat?”) and in one-on-one exchanges (“Is there a shoe repair place nearby?”), or to even speak on your behalf through suggested responses. There’s also a bunch of emojis, stickers, and ways to manipulate text size.
Allo’s success will hinge on whether its intelligent assistant works, and most importantly, whether people like it. Demos of the app show a virtual assistant butting into group text conversations to suggest restaurants, not unlike how Microsoft Word’s famous Clippy character might ask to help format your letter. But Fox says Google’s virtual assistant has resonated in beta tests because it’s subtle and helpful.
“In all cases, we never want the technology to get in the way of people having a conversation,” Fox says. “[The virtual assistant] is visible, but not intrusive.”
With Allo, Google has corrected the error of merging Hangouts and Gchat, instead building a separate video-calling app called Duo, which launched over the summer. Separating the apps will “allow them both to be great apps,” Fox says.
Moreover, Allo is tied to a user’s phone number, not their Google account. Fox believes Allo’s mobile focus and consumer-centric features will drive adoption of the app for personal use cases, while Gchat and Hangouts have been used more for business purposes.
Asked about the crowded market for messaging apps, Fox points to Google’s history of arriving late to a market and slowly overtaking incumbents. When Google launched Chrome, its web browser, in 2008, it had lots of competition. This year, Chrome surpassed Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as the world’s top-used desktop web browser. Likewise with Google’s core product, search. In 1998, the web was lousy with search engines. Today there’s Google and … Bing?
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The strategy doesn’t always work. (If it did, Google+ wouldn’t be a punch line.) When deciding whether to dive into a market, Google execs ask themselves, “Is the space really important, is there room for innovation, and do we think Google can do things that are uniquely better for the user?” Fox says. With Allo as evidence, their answer for messaging apps is clearly “yes, yes, and yes.”