Why I expect Allo to struggle

Google this week launched, Allo, the latest in its efforts at social. We’ve seen a long Wave of Google social products that have failed. Buzz, Wave, OpenSocial, Google+ on the pure social side. When you look at the subset of messaging apps, this includes gTalk, Google Voice, Google Hangouts among others.

Allo is Google’s latest attempt to compete with Facebook Messenger, iMessage, WhatsApp and Skype.

There is no clear reason to adopt this. Why is a user going to adopt Allo? Is it for:

  • Tons of emojis. (Piece of cake to emulate.)
  • To play command line games? Zork 2016 (Piece of cake to emulate.)
  • Google Assistant.
  • whisper SHOUT. (Piece of cake to emulate. iOS 10 includes this.)

Better to pick one thing and knock that out of the ballpark. You aren’t going to win FB Messenger users over with emoji. Given Google and Facebook’s relative strengths and weaknesses, I’d bet it all on Google Assistant. Another plus: It adds virality to Google’s other products.

The initial implementation of the assistant is an OK start, but there’s a long, long way to go. Google Assistant is like most bots, it overpromises and underdelivers.

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One of the challenges in natural language processing is understanding entities. When I asked a friend “Do you want to meet up at blue line pizza tonight?”, I got a search suggestion for “Pizza places nearby”. It didn’t recognize that “blue line pizza” is an actual place. When I said “How about tacorea?” It gave me the correct suggestion of “Tacorea restaurant”.

Having worked in local, search and messaging, I know that entity extraction is an incredibly hard technical problem. So I’m going to be more forgiving than most people. A lot of users will just feel that the experience is broken.

Google is also behind in another way: Unlike Facebook and iMessage (and even Google Hangouts), there is no desktop experience. I wanted to send a link to this post to a friend over Allo (after I wrote it on my Mac), but had to send it via Hangouts instead.

The biggest challenge for Allo will be distribution. I already have plenty of ways to message someone: Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, SMS, Line, Twitter DM, iMessage.

iMessage succeeded because it Apple just took over SMS transport for iPhone to iPhone messaging. (Apple was able to do this because it has always been able to dictate the rules to carriers.)

WhatsApp built its base outside the U.S. The primary reason people adopted it initially was to avoid paying the exorbitant cross-border SMS and MMS fees. There was an easy, compelling reason to switch.

Facebook Messenger used its insane time-on-site and hundreds of millions of users to build its user base. They had a massive (and personal) friend graph to work with.

So far, I haven’t seen anything from Google about how it’s going to attract users.