Google Allo, Google’s latest attempt to stay relevant in the instant messaging market, is finally going to work on something other than a single smartphone. Google is launching a web interface for the struggling instant messaging service.
Google Allo launched in September 2016, and it was missing so many basic messaging features it was dead on arrival. It only worked on phones, leaving tablets, laptops, and desktops out in the cold. It couldn’t be used on multiple devices at once. It didn’t work with SMS messages, so you couldn’t talk to your friends that weren’t on Allo. It didn’t even pull information from your Google account, needing a name and picture at registration. Instead of working to quickly fix these gaps in core functionality, the Allo team burned through their first year (and all their launch hype) launching superfluous features like additional stickers and animated gif support.
Now, almost a full year after launch, you can finally load up allo.google.com/web and type to someone via your computer. We gave it a quick trial, and it seemed fast and snappy, but, like the phone version of Allo, there are so many limitations that it makes Allo a very difficult to use. You can only be logged in to a single computer at once, meaning Allo now supports up to two simultaneous devices—one phone and one computer. Login happens via a QR code—rather than a Google account—which syncs the browser instance directly to your single Allo phone.
Allo messages do a good job of appearing on the phone and the computer, but if you shut off your phone or the battery dies, the browser instance of Allo dies too. If you log in on another computer or another browser tab, the old instance of Allo will die—only the new instance will work. Also remember this is just a browser tab, and not an app. There’s still no way to have an “always on” connection to Allo via desktop app or Chrome app extension. And speaking of Chrome, Allo Web only works in the Chrome browser—Edge, Safari, and Firefox users are out of luck. And Allo only works on an Android phone right now. iOS users will have to wait to access the desktop app.
The web interface has most of the Allo features you would expect, like stickers, emojis, and the ability to attach pictures. You can also message the Google Assistant, which is listed as a contact, but this version of the Google Assistant lacks most of the upgrades (like third-party app integration) that have arrived on the phone and Google Home versions over the past year. The web version also doesn’t support Allo’s “Wiper Shout” feature, which lets you change the size of text.
Google Allo’s feature set, like the QR code login, SMS-based registration, and single-device restriction, make it a clone of WhatsApp, Facebook’s instant messaging client that dominates the market in the developing world. One big problem with Allo—other than WhatsApp’s insurmountable lead in Allo’s target markets—is that Allo was built for the developing world, but advertised to everyone. The feature set just doesn’t work in countries where multiple connected devices are the norm—the janky login and device restrictions don’t make sense when you have more than a couple connected devices. Google still aggressively promotes Allo outside this target market though, giving the announcement a top-tier spot in its 2016 Google I/O keynote and making Allo the default Android instant messaging client.
Facebook bridges this divide with a dual pronged strategy to IM—WhatsApp for the developing world, and Facebook Messenger for the highly connected world. Google could have a setup like this with Hangouts and Allo, but its singular focus on Allo leaves out most tech savvy people in the US, which need something that will work on multiple devices.
With this one basic feature out-of-the-way, Allo has taken almost a full year to address one of the many complaints we had at launch. The service is still missing multiple device support, SMS integration, and a real desktop app or extension. This small gesture of a web client—which Google has been teasing for six months—feel like it’s too little, too late. Will Allo take another year to address all the day-one complaints? Development of the service moves so slowly that it seems hopeless to think Allo will never catch up with the IM industry leaders like Facebook and Apple.