​At Google I/O, Google plays social catch-up (again) with Allo, Duo, revamped digital assistant

Google wants in on the hottest areas of social as it takes aim at better messaging, video calling and digital assistants. Let's hope this round of social envy goes better than Google+ and Wave did.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Google outlined a new instant messaging app called Allo, a revamped Google Assistant and a video calling service dubbed Duo. Add it up and Google looks like it's revving up to make a social play again by taking on helpful bots, Apple's Facetime, Skype, Facebook's WhatsApp and Messenger as well as others.

What's unclear is whether any of these efforts will do better than Google's Google+, which didn't turn out to be the Facebook killer the search giant wanted. Google's bet is that "assistive," "ambient" and "conversational" experiences with its artificial intelligence will put a unique spin on the latest social efforts.

The hub of social today is messaging. Facebook gets this reality and bought WhatsApp and keeps iterating on Messenger. Toss in the Duo video calling app and Google appears to be getting on the messaging bandwagon too. The update to Google's digital assistant, which is cued by "OK Google," is an effort to keep up with the likes of Siri, Cortana and Alexa. It's clear that digital assistants are social too (hence Facebook's interest).

CEO Sundar Pichai said at his Google I/O keynote that the secret sauce for this effort will be artificial intelligence, voice queries and conversations. "We believe we're at a seminal moment in next 10 years and want to take next step to be more assistive," said Pichai. "Every single conversation is different. Every context is different."

Google I/O 2016: Scenes from the developer conference


Allo integrates machine learning, context and computer vision.

It's hard to see how any of these me-too additions from Google take off, but Android's market share will get them some traction.

Here's the breakdown of what Google outlined during its keynote along with the secret sauce that may enable these services to do well:

    Allo is Google's instant messaging app that's coming to Android and iOS phones this summer. The secret sauce with Allo is that you can communicate and ask Google questions while remaining in the same app. Google's take is that switching from app to app to get information is absurd (I'd agree). As a result, you can ask Google for directions, a score or another chore from within Allo. In other words, Allo is an interface that can unify a bevy of Google services and could be handy. I'm hopeful Allo can be interesting, but do wonder if the moving parts within the app will bog it down. I wonder about the same thing about Facebook's Messenger. The initial draw was simplicity. Bots and extra services can be a drag on communicating. Allo is supposed to learn over time via machine learning.

    Allo chats are encrypted and offer incognito mode. Allo will also allow the customer to set an expiration on a chat.

    Duo as a video chat app is interesting. The potential win here is that you can see a live feed of who is calling you before you pick up. Google's bet is that seeing someone before answering will spur conversations. I wonder how Duo will fare against Google's own Hangouts. I also wonder whether younger users will ditch Apple's Facetime or Snapchat for Google's Duo. The short answer is probably not.

    Duo is built on WebRTC with a protocol called QUIC to speed up video transmission. Google said Duo will work well by switching between cellular and Wi-Fi. The aim is to keep video calling instant and bring "the magic back to video calling."


    Google Assistant. Google is putting its digital assistant in more devices and giving it the ability to have a natural two-way conversation. In other words, Google Now aka OK Google is becoming more like Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana. Google has arguably the best artificial intelligence algorithms in the business, but it remains to be seen how this digital assistant fares. Google's best assistance comes when it does things in the background contextually. Google Assistant will be in every service--Allo, Google Home and whatever else the company cooks up.

    Pichai noted: "We want to be there for our users. We think of our assistant as a conversational assistant. We want to help you get things done in the real world and understanding your context," said Pichai, who added that the goal was to build a personal Google for every user.

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