Google’s New Video Calling App Duo Goes Live
Earlier in the year, during its annual developer conference, I/O, Google announced that it was working on a brand new video calling application called Duo.
The promise made by the company on stage and in its promotional materials was that Duo would be the video chat platform for the every man. It was to be a stripped-down, no-frills, sans bells and whistles experience that users could just pick up and use with minimal instruction. It would also allow both Android and iOS users to chat with each other, seamlessly.
Having tested the app out personally, I have to say that as a no-frills, easy-to-use video calling app, Duo is fantastic.
You simply tap the call button, tap a contact’s name and the call is initiated automatically. The best thing is that Duo is tied to your phone number so you can call people in your existing contact list without having to maintain a separate one specifically for Duo.
In essence, I like to think of Duo as Google’s delayed answer to Apple’s Facetime, which has been for the past few years, the standard-bearer for easy-to-use video calling applications.
When you first install the app, available on both iOS and Android, all you have to do is input your phone number, receive a confirmation text from Google and you are ready to go. I was set up within 10 seconds with my contact list populated and everything.
However, this almost manic attention to cutting fat means that the list of features on Google Duo isn’t very long. There is no integration with PCs, no conference calling and since it is tied to your phone number and not your Google account, you don’t get the full Google experience.
According to Amit Fulay, Group Product Manager at Google and one of the leads on Duo, this simplicity is very much by design.
“We wanted to have as simple an experience as possible. In one tap you should be able to get into a call,” he explained. “If you look at video calling today, it is our belief that it is the next best thing to being there in person, in terms of the human connection. However there is still a lot of friction when it comes to video calling. Our research shows that users worry about the other person’s connection, device compatibility and so on. We took a long, hard look at these issues and created a solution that is almost as simple as voice calling.”
While most of the app is simple and spartan, there is one feature that Google is touting heavily. It is called Knock-Knock and basically, when you receive a call via Duo, your screen shows you a live video feed of the person calling even before you answer so you can see who is calling or as Google’s promotional video suggests, lets them make strange faces to tempt you to answer.
A small caveat here is that due to many complex reasons, iOS users will not have full access to Knock-Knock, making this feature something only Android users will enjoy.
In my tests, Knock-Knock is fun and quirky and has the added bonus of helping you get prepared for the call by showing you the caller’s environment.
When Google first announced this feature though, people took issue with the fact that the Knock-Knock feature could potentially be abused to show things that may not necessarily be palatable. Google has dealt with this by giving the user the option to turn off the feature entirely or by blocking certain contacts.
Duo’s other main selling point is that, according to Google, it is optimized to use as little bandwidth as possible. “You can use the app via 2G on EDGE or 2.5G in GPRS, making it ideal for markets like India,” Fulay tells me.
In many ways, the developing world is where Duo could see its biggest uptake. India for example, has upwards of 200 million smartphones but still has large swathes of the country that are on 2G connections. Existing video calling apps like Skype, Facebook Messenger and LINE all recommend at least a stable 3G connection to work. An app like Duo, that uses new standards like WebRTC and build for more efficient data consumption could be just the thing to get the billions of people still on 2G to use video calling.
The elephant in the room here is Hangouts, Google’s current video calling platform. Unlike Duo, Hangouts is full-featured video calling solution that allows for various integrations and works on PCs as well as mobile devices.
“Hangouts will still be the place for productivity,” Fulay informs me. “Duo is meant to be about the individual, Hangouts is more for collaboration.”
At the moment, the company has no plans to bundle Duo with Android phones. This seems to be quite the missed opportunity for Google as having an out-of-the-box video calling feature proved very successful for Apple and Facetime.
Duo is available worldwide, right now on iOS and Android.