On Wednesday, Google unveiled several notable products during the keynote of its Google I/O developers conference, including an Amazon Echo competitor called Google Home (it’s cuter and smaller, but we’ll see if Assistant can stack up to Alexa); a(nother) VR platform called Daydream; and, for the brave heroes who won’t give up on smartwatches, a handful of upgrades to Android Wear.
Then Google introduced Allo and Duo, the most confounding addition to its suite of products. Allo is a text-based chat app that adds contextual Google Search to messaging. If you’re chatting with a friend and want to look up a good taco place, you can type the query into the message and Allo will find options for you, without leaving the app. You can search photos and news within Allo as well. It’s like a conversational Google Search — so, yes, Google has predictably (and from the looks of it, ably) hopped aboard the chatbot train. There are also tools like incognito mode, which completely wipes message history and enables end-to-end encryption, and other fun features like predictive text and customizable emoji features.
Duo is a video-calling app that looks a lot like other video-calling apps, except for a nifty feature that allows you to see a livestream of the person on the other end of the call before answering. And no, they can’t see you, so don’t worry about getting caught ignoring their calls. Duo also works well on poor cellular connections, limiting the number of dropped video calls.
Allo and Duo stole the show at I/O because they’re fun and consumer-facing — one-on-one and small-group chats are exactly why we use smartphones. At this rate, Google should create a single hub for these sorts of things, a service for all sorts of different types of calls and chatting, with all of these features packed inside. Oh wait, it did! Google Hangouts was introduced three years ago as the evolution of Gchat, a cross-platform, highly functional chat app and video-calling platform that allowed users to add up to 10 people to calls and schedule sessions in Google Calendar. There were even moving face filters before moving face filters were a thing! That nearly everyone had Hangouts woven into the Gmail hub made it that much easier to use across devices and platforms.
But Hangouts has had a difficult time as a brand. Differentiating between Hangouts, Gchat, and Google Talk has been confusing. The naming schematics have been terribly awkward. And the introduction of Hangouts’ various bits and pieces has been staggered and fumbled. Still, it remains a great and usable product.
Google hasn’t given up on Hangouts: Earlier this month, the iOS app was updated with a low-power mode option and a cleaner way to share content within messages. But a Google rep tells me there will be no announcements concerning Hangouts this week.
Instead, we got Allo and Duo. So why wasn’t the technology used to create Allo and Duo simply built into Hangouts to make it more robust? Why give users not one, not two, not three, but four (Allo, Duo, Hangouts, the just-launched Spaces) different places for chatting? (And don’t forget Google Talk.) A rep from Google says Hangouts is “a strong multi-platform app, serving the needs of users in productivity and group scenarios,” whereas Allo and Duo are supposed to be mobile only and single purpose, not all-encompassing services. It’s certainly a strategy — we’ve seen Facebook cut pieces of itself off as stand-alone apps rather than house everything in one place. It’s called unbundling and it both offloads the stress of putting too many features in one app and allows developers to live all over your phone. But unbundling takes up memory, and forces you to download yet more apps (and get your friends to download them, too, should you want to contact them), and will ultimately lead to some important questions, particularly, “Which of these 37 apps should I use to chat with my friend?” and then, “Wait, where was that one conversation happening again?”
We’re all suffering from app fatigue and installation hangovers, but Google chose to make two more things rather than just improve a preexisting one, creating new challengers to its own products. So we have options: Engage with Allo and Duo, or maybe just give up on messaging apps, buy a Google Home, and never talk to or text another human again.
This piece originally appeared in the May 20, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.