Though Google is known for great apps, it’s not great at communication apps. Hangouts never quite rivaled Apple’s Messages, and its Messenger app is strictly utilitarian at best. In 2016, Google’s wiping the slate clean and launching a two-front assault on messaging with two new apps, Allo and Duo. Today, Google fired the first volley with its FaceTime clone, Duo.
I spent some time facechatting Gizmodo’s Alex Cranz, and subsequently with her dog, Ody. The app is stripped down to an almost laughable degree. Launch the app for the first time, and you’ll see your big beautiful mug with just a giant circle labelled “video call”. This brings up your stored contacts. With the app being new, you’ll have to send invites to people you want to talk to and likely explain what the hell a “Duo” is.
Once they have downloaded the app, their white icons will turn blue and float to the top of your contact list, so you can immediately see who uses Duo.
Really the only novel/creepy feature (depending on the situation, I guess) is Knock Knock. When calling an Android phone (iOS doesn’t support the feature), the recipient of the call can actually see your face before he or she answers. However, this feature is completely optional and can be turned off in settings.
The app can switch between Wi-Fi and data from your carrier, no problem, though quality suffered a tiny bit when I relied on just my mobile network. But I can say the quality is really good, I could even see the fine details on Ody’s adorable, huggable, so-cute-I-want-to-crush-it face. Calls are also encrypted by default, which is a plus. There’s really not much more you can ask from a video call app.
But maybe there should be. The simplicity of this app is a clear departure from Hangouts, which can be a nightmare of tabs and features too overwhelming to navigate with any confidence. On the other hand, you might argue that Duo is too simple. After all, video calling apps completely fill the app store on both iOS and Android. Calling Google “late to to the game” is an understatement. It’s hard to imagine friends dedicated to one app for years would switch to Duo for… what exactly? I have no idea.
It doesn’t help that it’s also just a 1:1 video chat app, so no video conferencing whatsoever. That might be the reason that Google says it’s going to be keeping Hangouts around for the business folk.
But I can’t shake the feeling that this is more of an intentionally blank canvas that Google hopes to smartly build upon. It’s worth noting that the other half of Google’s next-generation communication platform isn’t even available yet. If Allo’s promise of super-smart contextual texting pans out, and it can seamlessly integrate with Duo, they’d be a pretty impressive power couple. The apps could even surpass Apple’s Messages and FaceTime as they’re not (stubbornly) confined to just one ecosystem.
But right now, Duo isn’t offering anything you haven’t already seen before.