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Google Duo: Does the World Need Another Video Chat App?

JT Ripton
September 14, 2016
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There's a war going on among Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and a handful of other big tech firms. The battle wages across product categories, with these big tech firms increasingly fighting in the same space at the same time as new hot technologies emerge. One of those battlefields currently is video chat, and Google just released its offering in the category: Google Duo.

There's only one problem: Does the world need another video chat app? There's already Skype from Microsoft, FaceTime from Apple, Messenger from Facebook, as well as innumerable other video chat clients with lesser followings. What does Google bring to the space?

Not much, although Google says that's the point.

Google Duo is a cross-platform video chat app that centers on simplicity. It has a simple user interface even Grandma can understand, plays nice on both Apple's iOS and Android operating, and eschews the many bells and whistles that other video chat apps provide, instead focuses on doing just one thing really, really well: simple video chat.

But with so many other options on the market, does Google Duo bring much to the table? It doesn't support group calling, an important feature for business. It lack fun augmented reality video effects such as augmented puppy ears (and many others), lessening its draw for consumers and the all-important teen space. There's no text chat, a feature both consumers and business pros rely upon. Nor does it even take advantage of its pedigree as a Google product, foregoing integration with the other Google real-time communications offerings of Google Chat, Hangouts, Spaces or the Android SMS app.

This is all part of the plan, according to Google.

"The logic is that [apps] will succeed if they're solving a use case really well," stresses Nick Fox, Google's VP of product management for consumer communication.

By cutting out all those other features it might have included, Google Duo focuses squarely on the message and not the medium; it leaves more room for the human interaction that is supposed to be the point of video chat. The Duo app also keeps it simple for speed and reliability, using the open standard, Google-championed WebRTC framework for real-time communications transmission.

That sounds like a plausible reason for the Duo's existence until you think about it. The Duo doesn't actually solve its use case really well.

Where's the Context?

Simple video chat does matter, so the premise behind Google's video chat offering is sound. When users have to download software, call from the same operating system or learn a new app, that does act as a barrier for the roughly 46 percent of U.S. adults who never make a video call on a mobile device, according to Google estimates. Google Duo doesn't fully get beyond these barriers, however.

Duo works cross-platform, but both users still must have the app installed. If a user wants to chat with someone not on Duo, the app sends a download link through SMS. Compare this with native WebRTC functionality, which runs on any platform or within any modern web browser and doesn't require plugins or downloads of any kind. Callers simply hit "connect" with WebRTC video chat, whereas Duo still needs a download.

If a user wants something more simple and cross platform than FaceTime, they don't go Duo. They go WebRTC.

More to the point, Google Duo lacks context. One of the reasons that Facebook video chat is so widely used is because every Facebook user has it installed and at the ready when the user is on Facebook and wants to make a call. There's no app switching; video calling is sitting there waiting for the user when they need it.

Few people care about the video chat platform they use. What they really want is an easy video connection in the context of their current activity. That's the reason that video chat companies like Agora.io who are doing brisk business, making it easy for developers to add in-app video chat to mobile applications and web sites. Easy is video calling in context, not moving off a web page or app and placing a video call.

Better Reliability than Skype, But is That Enough?

The second area that Google Duo stresses is reliability, and again Google gets the premise right. Poor video chat performance can make a big difference on mobile—especially in developing countries. Again, though: Does Duo go far enough to warrant its existence?

WebRTC as the foundation is a good start. It helps Duo optimize video for poor network connectivity over 2G connections, and it overcomes video and audio degradation that can come from weak connectivity or handoff from cell towers to Wi-Fi mid-call.

The use of WebRTC is not enough, though. To really handle the complex task of reliable video transmission, video chat solutions also must focus on last-mile optimization that frequently is the cause of poor video chat connectivity. This requires supporting a wide variety of devices in a wide variety of situations, something that Google Duo frankly does not offer. It is tested against only iOS 9 or later, and Android Jelly Bean or newer operating systems, in contrast to companies such as Agora.io that enable their video chat solution to work on more than 4,000 different devices. Duo might play fine with the newest Samsung Galaxy in Palo Alto, but it isn't going to perform on older phones in Thailand or in America's rust belt.

Google is competing in the crowded video chat space, but is Duo really worth considering as an alternative to Skype or Facebook video chat? Probably not.

Don't be surprised if Google Duo is about as successful as some of the company's other me-too offerings like Google+.


Co-Author Information

Peter Scott is a journalist and editor who has been covering technology, business and lifestyle trends for more than 20 years. You can contact him at PeterEditorial@gmail.com. And JT Ripton is a freelance technology, lifestyle and business writer out of Tampa. He loves to write to inform, educate and provoke minds. Follow him on twitter @JTRipton

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