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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Google’s cool tech and creepy interactions

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

I like Google, I really do. Every time I write something critical of Google1as I did earlier this week—I’m accused of being out to get it, despite the fact that I use and appreciate its services. But no monolithic tech company is so perfect that it can’t be criticized.

Last week’s Google I/O keynote was quite well done. The most disciplined and focused Google I/O keynote I’ve seen. And a lot of the technology on display was impressive, showing off Google’s strengths. Google and Apple are very different companies, and Google is right to point out all the places where it seems to be structurally and culturally more capable of excelling than Apple and the rest of its competition.

But Google also has cultural weaknesses and blind spots. And a few of them were on display at I/O, most strikingly (at least to me) in the introduction of the chat app Allo and the video-call app Duo.

Let’s start with Duo, Google’s equivalent of FaceTime. It’s a great feature on iOS, and Android users (and iOS users who want to talk to Android users) will be happy to have an equivalent from Google. But perhaps in order to gloss over how much Duo is just the duplication of a competitor’s existing feature, Google over-emphasized the biggest way in which Duo is different: That the video of an incoming caller can be displayed while your phone is ringing.

It’s a minor novelty feature. But by over-emphasizing it, Google also brought our attention to the fact that it’s potentially a weird, unpleasant feature. Leaving aside the potential for mischief—someone gets to display video on your screen without your assent!—the feature seems to misunderstand some things about human nature.

The I/O keynote sold the feature as a way to delight people with the sign of who was going to call them—a child’s smile, a beautiful vista. In reality, most people calling from their phones are just familiar faces in a rectangle. Nothing quite so spectacular. And if you’re one of the people placing a Duo call, you now have to pose for an invisible judge (who may or may not even be there), because even though you can’t see them, they can see you. How weird and uncomfortable is that?

I suppose one could make the argument that the act of initiating a phone call of any kind is already asymmetric—the recipient has to respond, immediately, to your hail. Seen in this way, you might say that Duo levels the playing field by making the caller have to be prepared and show themselves to the recipient. But it just seems weird and uncomfortable to pose while the phone rings. And introducing features that are technically brilliant but weird and uncomfortable in practice is one of those things Google seems to do often.

Now let’s take Allo. One of these days Google is going to need to get its messaging story together—how many different messaging apps and services does it have, now? I’m also not thrilled with the idea of a platform owner trying to eat the lunch of the many third-party services like WhatsApp and LINE and SnapChat that already do this. That said, I also recognize that Android’s platform owner should have an app like this.

The I/O demo of Allo, though, rubbed me the wrong way. And for a pretty simple reason: On stage, Google demonstrated a text conversation with two people, into which a Google chat bot would insert itself with helpful information. One demo involved a Google bot aiding with making a dinner reservation, for example.

I love the idea of intelligent assistants aiding me in tasks like finding a table at a restaurant when I’m coordinating dinner with someone. What struck me as wrong, though, was Google’s choice to implement this feature, not as an assistant inside the Allo user interface, but as a third “person” in the conversation. All of a sudden, a conversation between the couple going out for a romantic dinner has an extra participant in between the two of them.

This is a subtle distinction, and I can appreciate that people might not have a problem with it, but I think it suggests a lack of subtlety and understanding of human nature on Google’s part. Just as I don’t want to pose while I’m waiting for someone to answer my call, I don’t want my private conversations with human beings interrupted by a robot participant. I want my phone, and the assembled brainpower of the Google cloud, to aid me, to make me look smarter when I’m texting. I don’t want it to butt in. (In the I/O demo of Allo, a Google representative actually refers to the two-person dinner planning session between Amit and Joy as a “group conversation.”)

Maybe I’m old fashioned. Maybe the future of technology is littered with chatbots constantly elbowing their way into our conversations in order to help us, even when we don’t ask. But if my visceral reaction is anything to go on, I think perhaps Google has taken its (admittedly impressive) technology one step too close for comfort.

  1. Or Apple, for that matter… 

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