Google has a new chat app. Actually, two chat apps. However, since only one is available, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, there’s Duo, a no-frills video chat app.
As the name Duo insinuates, its focus is on just communication between two people. On live video. Nothing more. Just that.
There are two ways one can look at Duo. The first way is as a modern day video app inspired by the need to do just one thing and do it so well. Something meant for the millennial types than the oldies who’ve spent their entire lives using Microsoft’s Skype. That brings me to the second way one can look at Duo: as yet another attempt by Google to crack mobile messaging.
Here’s why we can’t fault that second view: because Google+ and Google Talk/Hangouts happened before. By introducing Duo as a video chat app what, then, becomes of Hangouts? Remember Hangouts is the nearly all-in-one and cross-platform messaging app that Google seems to have tried so hard to push and when all efforts hit a wall, unbundled it from Google+, it’s failed social network, and now it is stripping it of features (SMS integration was recently removed from Hangouts and users were visibly frustrated) and introducing what can be viewed as duplicates.
That is also the reason why the first point of view with regards to Duo is important. From my interaction with the app, it is not trying to be Hangouts or something. Far from it. As much as the whole idea behind Hangouts was to make things like video calls easy, Duo takes that a step higher while personalising the experience.
FaceTime made video calls mainstream for iPhone users, Duo has a chance to do the same for all Android users
Once set up, which is easy – install the app from the Play Store, launch it, key in your cellphone number, await the automatic SMS verification and get in – the first thing that one gets is their front-facing camera on the ready, prepared to “go live”. Below the camera viewfinder, there’s a quick contact list. Since Duo is relatively new, all my contacts who are on Duo are displayed there. I am not sure how it will look like when every one of my contacts start trooping to the app if it manages to catch on.
Tapping the “Video call” icon will bring up one’s entire phonebook so that they can choose who they want to call. Doing so, on my first attempt brought about a few things. First, I got to learn that Duo wasn’t all that accurate in showing me which one of my contacts has registered for Duo. I randomly picked out my friend Moses since he’s an early adopter of tech and I was wondering why he wasn’t listed as one of the few people I could chat on video with. Turns out I was right, he had the app and he actually picked up my call. But Duo never bothered to let me know he was using the app. If you pick out a contact that hasn’t registered on Duo yet, you’ll be asked to pick a messaging app that Duo can use to send them an invitation. That messaging app is simply whatever you use for sending SMS, including Facebook Messenger!
The other thing happened: since I was on the office Wi-Fi and it at times goes for lunch around 1PM, I saw, in real time, Duo change from Wi-Fi to mobile data and back to Wi-Fi when the connection seemed stable, seamlessly! For those who are keen on the specifics, for like 3 minutes when I was on that particular call, I spent just 23 megabytes of data. I know it is three minutes because I bothered to check the time otherwise I wouldn’t know since Duo doesn’t have an in-call timer and since there’s no log of your call details, as of now, there’s no way to just find out how long you stayed in a call.
With Duo, Google is focusing on one thing and one thing alone: the best possible experience when making video calls on mobile. That’s the one thing that can be missing on Android, Google’s own platform. Now, let’s not bring up Hangouts, shall we? FaceTime is popular because of its simplicity and, like Apple likes to say, it just works.
That is what Duo is envisioned to be. That can be tough since people have different devices and since mobile devices, where Duo works, are entirely dependent on cellular networks when not on Wi-Fi and a reliable connection is not always assured. This is something I often encountered when trying to communicate with colleagues who were using their mobile internet away from the office. But what is important is that even in those cases, Duo still kept the stream alive and did not disconnect it. It will simply pause the call if the network is really bad and resort to audio instead of outright disconnection and then resume once the connection becomes stable.
According to Google, the app identifies when bandwidth is low and adjusts accordingly and this may just be the main reason why Duo video calls will make sense for most users. As I found out, a stable 3G connection is all that one needs to get going.
Knock Knock, the feature that allows one to view a live video of the person calling them before they pick up the phone and vice versa, is brilliant! At least according to me. Some may find it creepy and in that case it’s good to know that Knock Knock can actually be turned off right from Duo’s settings. Another thing, it won’t work if you don’t have a person’s phone number in your contacts list which is great for keeping anyone hell bent on snooping at bay.
I’ve had Skype on both my computer and my phones for a long time but other than when I had a couple of friends studying abroad and needed to say hi occasionally, it’s not had much use video-wise. I limit Skype calls to just voice mostly because of the quality of the connection and me being conscious about my data bundles being depleted real quick. During my short stint in tech support at a very busy department in a large organization, Skype was simply my work messaging tool. Since I’m no longer working dead in the night to fix clients’ broken SMS apps and short codes, Skype has been pushed to the periphery and WhatsApp and Telegram, which do exactly what I used my Skype for (instant messaging) very well, have taken over. With Duo making it so easy to call my friends, I might just hop on the video calling bandwagon again.
This is exactly why Duo is important for me. Despite having been a part of Google’s global student outreach program in my college-going days, I never bothered to use Hangouts for video chats. Not even my strong affiliation, then, with the company that made it could push me to use it. That was mostly because of the hoops involved to get that going (like users needing to have a Google account and opted into Hangouts; if on PC, having to install a few more things before getting started and so on). With Duo? None of that is there. The user interface is as simple as simple goes. One only needs a phone number to register and start making calls.
Simple as that may be, it may also be one of the app’s biggest limitations. I use multiple devices thanks to the nature of my work. As such, it would make a lot of sense if I would be able to just remove the smartphone I am currently reviewing out of my pocket and calling my brother back at home. But no, Duo does not work like that. Since I did not set it up on the review device, I just can’t have it working anywhere else besides my main phone. Never mind that my main Safaricom SIM is slotted on the review phone. For that to happen, my main phone would be locked out so that at any given time only one device is registered on the app. Just like WhatsApp does. Really Google? In 2016?
Even before you can calm down after realizing that you can only use Duo on one phone, you get reminded that it’s limited to just the phone. It has no desktop client. While it is not a bad idea to be mobile-first, it is highly inconveniencing to not have a desktop client/app. But, as I wrote earlier on, it depends on how you look at it. For a no-frills video calling experience on mobile, Duo is spot on. For anything else beyond that, it is not.
For instance, you cannot call more than one person at a time. Duo is a person-to-person video chat app. Want to dial in your co-workers in the field on a video chat? That’s why Google is still keeping Hangouts going. For you enterprise types. But what if it is just my family members scattered across the country that I want to talk to? It looks like that will have to wait for when they are together in one room and I’m the only one on this other side of the phone or we go look for another solution. But… only Duo (and not those other solutions) will maintain the video chats with those who are in parts of the country with spotty network *insert shrug emoji here*.
Used to sharing whatever is on your screen on Skype? Duo does not have that but it will, at least, allow you to switch from the front camera to the back camera once you’re on a video call. This can be useful for showing someone around or something like that.
FaceTime made video calls mainstream for iPhone users, Duo has a chance to do the same for us who’ve only ever known Google’s mobile platform. Since it also works on iPhones, I see it struggling to make a case for itself for users who are so hooked to their FaceTime.
Knock Knock and the ability to keep video calls going even in the wake of really bad network connections aside, I also like other tiny bits of Duo. Like the fact that it won’t hang up when you exit the camera viewfinder in the middle of a video call – the call is simply switched to an audio-only mode. This even before the feature becomes available for all time use (Google is said to be bringing support for just voice calls soon). The other thing is this screen that shows up after you finish a video call:
Knowing Google, it is likely using that feedback for something that will make the overall experience better.
There are so many out there saying that Duo is dead on arrival. Google has the next few months to make Duo such a compelling app that they’ll look themselves in the mirror and take back their words. However, that won’t be happening anytime soon if things like cross-platform support are not addressed.
Google can always give its own video chat app a leg up if it needs to: by making it a system app when Android Nougat starts rolling out. Hangouts is one of the few apps on the Play Store with over 1 billion downloads not because it is extremely popular but because it was pre-installed on every Android device certified by Google until recently. As I write this, Duo has already crossed the half a million mark on the Play Store without much help from Google. Imagine what will become of it when that happens.