I was recently coaxed into giving Telegram, the messaging app that started off as a WhatsApp clone but has gone on to add many more features since then, another try by a group of friends on, well, WhatsApp. Look, I already have too many instant messengers. I use WhatsApp by default, Facebook Messenger for talking to people I know but whose phone number I don’t have, Slack for talking with colleagues at the workplace, and Twitter Direct Messaging to talk people on Twitter. I also use Skype — not very often, but often enough to have it installed on my phone — to make video calls. And then there are some people who still insist on plain text messaging.
Now, we have two more instant messaging apps to deal with. At I/O 2016, its annual developer conference, Google announced Allo, a messaging app that competes directly with both Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and Duo, an app that lets you make video calls.
Allo has some neat tricks up its sleeve. The app understands the conversation and suggests appropriate responses that you can simply tap, instead of typing them out. And a Google bot can be summoned in any conversation to help out with contextual information like figuring out that you’re making dinner plans and suggesting suitable restaurants — all without leaving your chat window.
Duo is a Skype/FaceTime competitor with a feature called Knock Knock (seriously), that lets you see the person who calls you even before you pick up the call, making their intention clearer.
But here’s the thing. No matter how great these features sound, it all boils down the same question, the question Facebook spent $19 billion buying WhatsApp for: how many of your contacts are actually going to use it?
It’s not like Google is migrating Hangouts/Google Talk users to these new apps. Both Allo and Duo are based on phone numbers like WhatsApp, so Google is essentially starting from scratch. And while using artificial intelligence to make conversations easier and more fun appeals a lot to geeks like me, I sincerely doubt whether it is enough to make regular people install yet another chat app. And Duo’s Knock Knock feature, if not patent-protected, is a small update away from being incorporated into existing platforms like Skype and FaceTime.
I find this abundance of instant messaging applications maddening. I find myself constantly juggling between these apps trying to remember where I had a particular conversation with someone. And on my phone, they suck up precious battery life and guzzle data.
Google could have easily avoided this by building Allo’s core features like predictive replies right into Google Keyboard, which is available both on Android and iOS. In that case, most of Allo’s key features could have potentially worked right within WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Apple’s iMessage. But, I suppose, it is in Google’s best interest to keep all these conversations on a social platform they own, in which case, why not simply add these features to Hangouts, which is already popular and is preinstalled on most Android phones?
It seems to me that Google likes this conflict of letting multiple apps that do the same things coexist — there’s Inbox versus Gmail, YouTube Music versus Google Play Music, Chrome OS versus Android, and Hangouts versus Messenger for sending text messages.
I can already see how this is going to go. Once Allo and Duo are out in a couple of months, a few people like me will get excited and jump on the bandwagon. Eventually, we will fall back to our trusty messaging app of choice. At this point, the only way any new messaging app will make any real headway is if either Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp make a fatal mistake. The chances of that happening any time soon? Zilch.
Image: Nikhil Raj
Editor’s note: This post initially called Telegram a “WhatsApp clone.” While that was certainly what Telegram was when it started, it has greatly matured since then, adding powerful features like self-destructing messages, and its own API. The post has been updated to reflect this.
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