Google announced two new messaging platforms at Google I/O: Allo, an upcoming application heavily integrated with Google Assistant, and Duo, a video app that showcases live footage from incoming calls before users even pick up. These apps also come a mere two days after Google announced Spaces, a group chat application and social network that’s heavily integrated with Google’s own search engine.
Why introduce three separate apps, though? And doesn’t Google already have Hangouts, which offers messaging, group chats, and video conferencing? And isn’t there also something called Google Messenger?
You’re not wrong to wonder, and today’s Google I/O keynote did not clarify whether these new services will exist alongside old tools or replace them entirely. Google told Digital Trends that Hangouts will continue to be supported, and grow, and that every app serves a unique purpose. At the same time, all three new services will offer features not currently seen in Hangouts, some of which will overlap with the platform and others to varying degrees.
To quickly summarize, Google currently offers, or will soon offer:
- Allo: A messaging service for mobile devices that integrates tightly with Google Assistant.
- Duo: A one-to-one video chat service for mobile devices that’s designed to show a live preview before you pick up a call.
- Hangouts: A messaging service for mobile and desktop devices that also offers video chat.
- Spaces: A new platform that meshes group chat capabilities with a social network, so users can for share links and converse about them on mobile and desktop devices.
- Messenger: Google’s SMS/MMS application for Android phones.
- Voice: A barely-supported web service that allows users to combine various phones with one number for voice calls and SMS/MMS.
Confused? Let’s break things down a little more.
Allo aims to be a smart messaging app with search integration
Let’s start with Allo. This new messenger application is heavily integrated with Google Assistant, Google’s upcoming conversational AI, which makes it possible to get quick answers to almost any question. This means that, if you’re talking with a friend about plans for Thursday, you could look up a place to eat and even make a reservation all without leaving Allo.
These features are exciting, and we can’t wait to try them out, but there’s more to Allo than just that. Here’s a quick rundown.
- Smart replies: Over time, Allo will learn your typical responses to certain phrases, or pictures of babies, and suggest appropriate responses like,”Cute!” These smart replies will even pick up on your emoji and sticker habits, and suggest appropriate responses.
- End-to-end encryption: Communication over Allo is secure, and Google can’t even crack it.
- Whispershout: This feature lets you toggle a slider to adjust the size of your text. Google suggests large text as a replacement for ALL CAPS YELLING, and small text for subtly.
So that’s Allo, a text-based platform with some new features and heavy Google integration.
Duo is Google’s new, one-on-one video call platform
What about Duo? This is a video chat service is best compared to Apple’s FaceTime. It’s currently exclusive to mobile devices, and calls are tied to your phone number instead of your Google account. The defining feature, however, is how incoming calls look. Instead of merely showing you a name and a photo, Duo presents you with a live video feed from the phone of whoever is calling you.
Picking up is instant, meaning you’ll be able to talk as soon as you answer the call. That’s a huge contrast to Hangouts’ video chats, which can be very slow in this regard.
But Hangouts seems to have at least one advantage here. Duo is billed as a “simple, one-to-one video calling app for everyone,” which implies that group calls will not be supported. So does the name “Duo,” now that we think of it. It seems like, at least for now, users can use Duo for one-on-one conversations, but will need Hangouts for group video chats.
Spaces lets groups share links and chat
Speaking of groups, Google also announced Spaces earlier this week. The application functions as both a chat client and a social network, and is in many way, serves as Google’s answer to services like GroupMe, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. Integration with Google’s search engine is also a key focus, allowing users to look things up without leaving Spaces.
The app is intended more for people with specific interests to get together and talk about them than general messaging.
Hangouts was designed to combine Google’s chat services
This messaging service was supposed to bring all of Google’s conversation tools under one roof, thus combining the Google Chat service once native to Gmail with Hangouts, the popular video conferencing service that launched with Google Plus.
Like Allo, it offers one-on-one conversations — complete with stickers and emoji — albeit without Google Assistant integration. Like Spaces, if offers group conversations, albeit without Google search integration. Like Duo, it also offers video conferencing, albeit without a live preview before calls begin. Basically, Hangouts does a little bit of what these new apps do, but the new apps bring new features to the table. Google launching three new communication apps outside of Hangouts suggests that the company no longer plans to integrate everything into Hangouts, or support it as much.
Messenger is Google’s SMS app for Android
On Android, users were briefly encouraged to combine Hangouts with their SMS messages, which created a sort of alternative to Apple’s iMessenger. Free Hangouts messages worked with your fellow Google users, while SMS allowed you to chat with everyone else.
Google dropped this plan a year ago, and is now encouraging users to download the separate Messenger app instead. This offers a Material Design interface for SMS and MMS messages. It also boasts integration with your phone’s camera and photo library, but at its heart, Messenger is a smartphone app for old-school SMS and MMS messages.
Google Voice still exists, and gives multiple phones one number
How deep down the rabbit hole do you want to go? Because Google Voice is yet another communication platform offered by Google that users, and Google itself, seem to have forgotten. That said, it’s still here.
This service gives you a phone number, which you can give out to friends. Calls made on traditional phones to this number can be forwarded to as many phones as you like, and it also supports SMS with forwarding. The idea is that anyone with multiple phones — whether for home or work — can give out a single contact number.
At one point, Google seemed so set on integrating Google Voice with Hangouts that it prompted users to forward their SMS messages to Hangouts instead of their phones. To make things even more confusing, Hangouts now offers the ability to make phone calls on the desktop, regardless of whether you’ve integrated Voice with the service. It also offers support for sending SMS messages without Voice integration.
We’d go on, but we have a headache now. Just know that Google Voice is another service entirely, with a complicated set of features that can integrate with Hangouts.
Google thinks you can never have too many chat apps
We could go on. Gmail users can optionally disable Hangouts, and even revert back to Google Chat. The latter service is compatible with Google Hangouts, but it’s not exactly the same thing. Hangouts doesn’t offer away messages or stickers, for instance, while GChat does.
And we could dig up other communication apps that failed, like Google Wave, but this seems like a good place to stop. We’re not sure what the future of Google’s messaging platforms, but we do know there there are a lot of them. Here’s hoping we don’t have to update this article next year with three more services.