Six years after Apple launched its video calling service, Google finally has an answer for FaceTime.
On Tuesday, the search giant released Duo, its new video calling app, and I gave it a test run. Google designed Duo to be like FaceTime – easy to use. As with Apple’s app, users can simply tap on a friend’s name from their address book and connect.
Duo has one big advantage over FaceTime – it allows Android users to place video calls to iPhone owners and vice versa. FaceTime only works on Apple devices.
Google also gave Duo a cool feature that FaceTime lacks. Dubbed Knock Knock, it offers a kind of preview of the video call. Knock Knock allows the recipient of a call to see a live view of the person placing the call to get a sense not only of who is calling but why.
And Duo has a simpler initial view than FaceTime. Where FaceTime’s home screen offers a list of contacts users have recently called, Duo show users a view of themselves and a big “video call” button. If users tap on that button, they'll see a list of friends who they can call on the app.
If they’ve placed calls recently, they'll also see thumbnail pictures of the friends they’ve contacted on the home screen. Those pictures act as buttons that allow them to make a quick follow-up video call.
But in general, the app works much like FaceTime. Like Apple’s app, it’s only used for calling; users can’t send text messages through it. As with FaceTime interactions, Duo encrypts calls, so users don’t have to worry about someone spying on their conversations. And as with FaceTime, Duo automatically identifies people in users’ address books who can be reached through the app.
On Tuesday, I did a quick test of Duo, which Google announced in May at its annual developer conference. It worked mostly as advertised. My wife was able to easily place a call from her iPhone to mine using the app. I was able to return her call quickly by simply tapping on a thumbnail picture button on the Duo home screen.
The video was generally smooth, although there was a hiccup in it. The app is supposed to be able to keep a video call going even if your phone switches from Wi-Fi to a cellular network. But while talking with my daughter, the video of me cut out when I turned off my Wi-Fi radio. I was able to see her, but she could only hear me. My video resumed when I turned my Wi-Fi radio back on.
Google is no stranger to video calling. Users of Google Talk could place video calls on their PCs eight years ago. Google Hangouts, which the company launched three years ago, allows users to connect on PCs and mobile devices and can be used for video conferences involving multiple people.
And users of Google’s Android operating system have numerous choices for video calling apps, including Skype, Facebook Messenger, and WeChat. Cell providers Verizon and T-Mobile also offer video calling features for Android phones.
But until now, Android users haven’t had something as easy and ubiquitous to use for video chats as FaceTime. While Hangouts comes preinstalled on most devices, it’s a much more complicated app that can be difficult to use.
With Skype, Facebook and other apps, users can typically only place video calls to people who are using the same app. And in some cases users have to know a person’s often idiosyncratic logon name to connect.
And the cellphone video services generally allow users to place video calls only to other users who have certain phones that are connected to the same cellular network.
Enticing for iPhone users?
While Duo may be aimed at FaceTime, I’m not convinced it’s going to convince iPhone users to switch to Android. But if it gets enough of a following, it could make it easier for iPhone users to at least consider making the move.
Still, FaceTime, which debuted with Apple’s iPhone 4 back in 2010, retains some advantages over Duo. Apple offers it for Mac computers, while Duo isn’t available for the Mac or Windows PCs. FaceTime allows users to place audio-only calls, while Duo is focused on video ones. And FaceTime users can connect to people even if they don’t know their phone number; FaceTime also recognizes their email address.
Duo comes as chat apps in general are becoming a major battleground among tech firms. In addition to allowing users to make video calls and send text messages, a new generation of messaging apps is allowing users to do everything from make hotel reservations to order pizza. Such apps are also building in “bots,” automated services that can answer questions or perform other features.
WeChat, which offers users a collection of such features, has become popular in its native China. American technology companies are trying to get up to speed. Google has a new advanced text messaging app called Allo in the works that it announced at the same time as Duo. Earlier this year, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple each announced upgrades that will bring bots and other advanced features to their messaging apps.
Chat bots and other advanced messaging features pose a potential threat to Android and Apple’s iOS that’s similar to what Microsoft’s Windows faced from web browsers. Because users can potentially accomplish most of their everyday tasks within one particular app, it wouldn’t matter as much which phone they were using, what operating system it was running or which other apps are available for it.