Wolverton: Google’s new video chat app aims for Apple simplicity

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. 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.

“Video calling is the next best thing to being with someone in person, but too often it can be a frustrating or complicated experience,” Justin Uberti, a principal software engineer, wrote on Google’s company blog site. “Duo takes the complexity out of video calling, so that you can be together in the moment wherever you are.”

Duo has one big advantage over FaceTime — it allow Android users to place video calls to iPhone owners and vice versa. FaceTime only works on Apple devices.

Google also added a cool feature not present in FaceTime to Duo. 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 homescreen. 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 made through it, 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 a WiFi to a cellular network. But while talking with my daughter, the video of me cut out when I turned off my WiFi radio. I was able to see her, but she could only hear me. My video resumed when I turned my WiFi 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 pre-installed 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 log-on name to connect.

And the cell phone 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.

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 PC’s. 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.

Photo: Google Duo. (Courtesy of Google)

 

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