At Google’s I/O event earlier this year it showed off two new mobile communications apps: the artifical- intelligence toting instant messenger app Allo, and video-calling app Duo. The latter went live today in app stores around the globe, including here in South Africa. So, what does Duo do and should you use it instead of existing solutions like Apple’s FaceTime, Microsoft’s Skype, Facebook’s Messenger, Snapchat or Google’s own Hangouts app, for that matter?
First, let’s talk about what Duo can and can’t do. Install the app, open it up, insert your phone number, get a verification code via SMS, verify your account, allow access to your contacts and camera and you’re good to go. So far, so like other mobile number-linked messaging platforms WhatsApp and Telegram. Tap the “video call” button and those of your contacts with Duo show up above your full list of contacts. Tap one of them and you’re off.Duo supports one-to-one video calling between mobile devices. And that’s about it. There’s no desktop app, no support for multiple participants, no filters that make you look like a septuagenerian or a pooch. So what do you get? First, cross platform support. Duo’s available for Android and iOS, which (along with its less snigger-inducing name) gives it an immediate edge over the Apple-only FaceTime.
But that cross platform support comes with limitations. One of Duo’s unique features is something called “Knock knock” that activates the caller’s camera as soon as a call is initiated, so the recipient gets a live video feed of the caller — which hopefully serves as incentive to take the call — before they answer. But this feature only works properly on Android devices (it’ll only work on Apple devices if you’ve already got the app open).
And on Apple devices you need to unlock the device in order to answer a call… which is a little inelegant. Perhaps that’ll be rectified in a future update, but we’re sure it has more to do with Apple’s draconian approach to what developers can and can’t control on iDevices than any oversight from Google.
Another purported Duo advantage is its lack of account settings. Because it’s linked to your phone number you don’t need a Google account — or accounts for any other platform — to use it. But that advantage is a fairly minor one, and could actually prove a hinderance for frequent travellers who eschew buying a local SIM card when abroad and opt to only use Wi-Fi instead.
Google promises that all calls are encrypted end to end, and says Duo is designed to handle switching between Wi-Fi and mobile networks without dropping calls. Duo’s also good at adjusting video quality based on connection speed.
But is any of this enough to get a sufficient number of users interested in Duo to prevent it landing up on the Google scrapheap alongside Buzz, Reader and Wave? Communications apps ultimately come down to two things — are your friends and family using them, and do they get out of your way. Duo’s incredibly simple interface definitely ticks the second box. We’ll probably have to wait six months to find out if it manages to tick the first.