Chibueze Anakor

Messaging on Android in a Post-Allo World

Posted March 27, 2019
0 Comments Includes Allo, Android, Messaging

It’s been about two weeks since Google killed Allo, which was Google’s “smart” messaging app that gave you features that you wouldn’t find in regular SMS chats. I may be one of just a very small minority in saying this, but I miss Allo a lot, and unfortunately, Android Messages is just not a good replacement for Allo. That’s due to US carriers’ infuriatingly slow adoption of RCS, which is the standard that is supposed to be the successor of SMS. What did Allo do so well that made me miss it so much? In what ways could Allo have improved? Where does that leave those of us who are on Android who want a reliable messaging app that’s smarter than SMS? Stick around to find out my answers to those questions.

Allo did so many things right as a smart messaging app. First, it was the birthplace of the Google Assistant in messaging, which was very useful to me in situations where I didn’t want to look goofy trying to say, “Hey Google” in public. Using the Google Assistant in Allo also enabled games to be played within chats, which was actually a lot of fun. On top of that, the Google Assistant enabled features such as sharing travel times with friends, scheduled messages with certain themes, and much more. Allo was also the app to introduce WhisperShout, which allowed users to enlarge or shrink text to add more context to a conversation when all caps weren’t enough to get one’s point across. WhisperShout was a feature that no other messaging app (to my knowledge) has replicated. Allo was also the only Google messaging app to have chats with end-to-end encryption, just like Apple’s iMessage (if your chats were in Incognito Mode). Another feature that Allo introduced was Smart Replies. If that name sounds familiar to you, then there’s a good chance that you’re either a Gmail user, an Android Messages user, or both. Smart Replies are responses that Google formulates for you based on the message that was sent to you. Allo later had a web client that allowed users to continue their messages on a computer (if the user had an Android phone and used Chrome as their browser).

Though Allo did a lot right, it also got a lot wrong at launch, and some, if not all of these things stalled Allo’s growth, and led us where we are today. For starters, there was the lack of proper SMS support, which was probably the biggest reason that Allo didn’t succeed. If you wanted to invite someone to use Allo, the app would send that person a spammy-looking SMS message that didn’t come from your number, which was off-putting to some people. I wish Google had made the invite process a lot less sketchy than it was. To add to Allo’s SMS failures at the time, it didn’t even have SMS as a fallback in case the recipient wasn’t using Allo, and because there was no proper SMS support, there was no way to set Allo as the default messaging app on Android phones. I also did not see a lot of promotion or marketing for Allo after its initial launch. Oh, and Allo didn’t come pre-installed on any Android phone that wasn’t one of Google’s Pixel devices.

With the death of Allo, there is no longer a first-party messaging app from Google that offers end-to-end encryption. So where do Android users go for a messaging experience that is similar to Allo’s? Well, there are a few options. There are Facebook products, such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, but because they are both owned by Facebook, their privacy may be questioned by many. There’s also Signal, an open source, cross-platform, and end-to-end encrypted messenger that also has a desktop client. Telegram, which is a cross-platform encrypted messaging app that rivals WhatsApp in popularity, serves as another alternative to Allo. Finally, there’s Android Messages, the first-party solution from Google that supports RCS, which is probably the least desirable option for the following reasons:

  • RCS relies heavily on carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint in the US) and their support of that standard, which, as of the time of this writing, is sorely lacking. Because of this, barely anyone in the US has RCS capabilities on their phones.
  • Apple’s iPhones don’t support RCS yet, and support from the company that holds about 20% of the smartphone market could go a long way in getting carriers to get off their butts (I’m trying not to curse here) and implement RCS support.
  • RCS is unencrypted, which means that carriers and governments can spy on you through your texts at any time.
  • Because the number of people who have RCS on their phones is so little, Android Messages users are stuck with the inferior SMS, which doesn’t support many modern messaging features, such as high-quality media (pictures, GIFs, and videos) sharing, longer character limits on individual messages, read receipts, and more. All of these features are present in RCS.

Allo was a unique messaging app that brought features that now exist in other messaging apps, and I really do wish that Google had supported Allo better, because if they did, Allo would still be alive and I would still be using it as my primary messaging app. Unfortunately, here we are, with Allo now a thing of the past. With Android Messages being limited by carrier support and the small feature set of SMS, and Hangouts being months away from its death, there is no proper first-party replacement for Allo. I feel like Google needs to get its messaging strategy straight because Android users deserve better than the options that Google has provided for us.